Richard Gombin

Council Communism


Digitalized by; transcribed into HTML by Jonas Holmgren for the Marxists Internet Archive

The theory of workers' councils originated in the new forms of industrial conflict which burgeoned during and immediately after the First World War. Among these new forms we can (already) mention wildcat strikes, factory occupations and the formation of committees of shop-floor delegates.

The whole question of the council phenomenon is shrouded in myths and mistaken interpretations, which induce caution. For example, while we generally tend to associate the soviet with the Russian Revolution, the original concept of the council—based on a radical critique of the classical theory of party and unions—was not formulated in Russia (either in 1905 or in 1917). Again, for a long time the councils were presented as an institution springing forth spontaneously from the revolutionary mass movement, incarnating the autonomy of the masses relative to the proletariat's own organisations. This is only completely true in the case of the 1905-7 Russian Revolution, and one should bear in mind that the unions were still only in their infancy at the time, while the Bolsheviks were unrepresented in the factories. In 1917, on the other hand,[1] the councils were of a very different nature, more closely resembling the type then prevalent in Central Europe. Here, reality was a far cry from legend. For councils of all kinds were formed on the initiative of one or another of the nuances of the socialist movement, or were at least controlled by them.[2]

One cannot, therefore, claim that the councils reflected an entirely autonomous reality or practice. In any case, this would have been inconceivable at a time—to use a Leninist expression—when even social-democratic consciousness was far from affecting all working-class milieux.

But as with all genuinely revolutionary epochs, the period 1914-21 brought with it both topian transformations of reality as well as a projection of more profound demands for emancipation which were to remain within the realm of utopia.[3] In the world of concrete phenomena one has only to think of the immense upheaval which occurred in manners, in the most deeply rooted beliefs, in habits and customs unchanged all through the nineteenth century. One should also bear in mind the development of new practices, such as active State intervention in social and economic life, the growing involvement of women of all classes in the world of work, their political as well as familial self-assertion; the end of the gold standard and of price stability, the assertion of national rights, the collapse of feudal systems (in Eastern and Central Europe). These are just some of the factors signalling a total break with the past.

Social relations had inevitably undergone a profound transformation. A whole generation had been mobilized, whether in the army, in munitions factories, agriculture or hospitals. Uprooted once and for all, it was to prove far less submissive, much more turbulent than its predecessors. Above all, it was thrust into a world of anxiety and economic uncertainty in which it was far more prone to contestation. Nor would the spirit of contestation, of revolt even, spare the workers' organizations themselves, for their attitude and behaviour in the course of this period was gravely to sap the capital of trust they had built up among militants in the pre-war era.

Paradoxically, the unions and workers' parties actually grew in numbers and discipline immediately after the war, at a time when their authority was becoming more readily questioned. The haste with which workers' and socialist leaders had rallied to their national flags, the collaboration between unions and civil and military authorities to break wildcat strikes during the war, provided working-class consciousness with a heavy dose of scepticism. So, through their new forms of action, workers in fact gave vent to a whole range of utopian aspirations made possible by secular subjection. Thus, at one and the same time. authoritarian-type apparatuses and ideologies gained in followers while losing in credibility. The first leaf of this diptych held sway for half a century, with the ascendancy of the workers' leadership becoming topia; but today we are witnessing the emergence of a quest for autonomy which was already to be found in embryo in the years 1917-21 .

The institutions which arose in this period, and which constitute a positive innovation by comparison with what had by now become a veritable working-class custom, partake of this antinomic duality. For the most part, the workers' council was under the control of syndicalist or socialist militants. But as a project (and the spontaneous and unpredictable conditions of its appearance bear witness to this), the workers' council is a concrete utopia, overriding and denying the circumstances of its institutionalization. It contains, in the form of (not immediately realizable) virtualities, the demand for autonomy currently thrusting itself into the forefront of attention.

The originality of the council movement lay in its perception of the drift of future evolution. Although its theoretical work was founded on indications only, it was certainly not based on illusion. True, it was difficult to avoid triumphalism entirely in the conditions of revolutionary ferment of those years. Some even went so far as to identify any workers' council with some form of opposition to the established workers' leaderships, thus stumbling into a dogmatism which has marked the major part of council ideology. Consequently, it is worth taking a look at the real context within which these strikes and councils, mutinies and revolts grew up before going on to deal with the theory of councils and the circumstances of its birth in detail.


The First World War and the emergence of new forms of workers' struggle

The situation in most of the belligerent countries was pre-revolutionary, if not revolutionary. But setting aside Russia, we find three types of situation. In Germany and Austria, councils covered the entire territory and assumed at least partial power; in Bavaria and Hungary they wielded formal political and social power at the summit: while in England and Italy, even if the councils had no political power, they nonetheless developed into a far from negligible council movement.

Workers' councils made their appearance in Austria in November 1918, at the same time as in Germany. They rapidly spread to cover much of the country; but very nearly all of these organizations were formed on the initiative of the socialist party, and socialist militants were well represented on the councils' highest bodies—the executive committees. Furthermore, and here lies the main difference with Germany, the Austrian councils were never once in a position to seize power. The revolution, if revolution there was, occurred within the framework of State and parliamentarianism.[4]

In Germany, on the other hand, the councils were constitutional in character. The first occasion was on 10 November 1918, when the Greater Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Council confirmed the composition of the new government, which was followed by the transfer of executive power to the government on 23 November.[5] Similarly, a month later the Pan-German Congress of Councils handed over its powers to a future Constituent Assembly, for which it then voted.

But reality was more complex than these juridical forms suggest. The situation arose out of the balance of political power and of the very nature of the workers' councils in Germany. The latter made their appearance in the wake of the strike movement and the army mutinies which hit the country as from 1917. These strikes were aimed at employers who refused to increase wages despite rising prices; and at the government, which was doing nothing to halt the war, but they were also directed against social democracy and the unions. As far back as August 1914 the SPD (the German Social Democratic Party) had adopted a policy of collaboration with the imperial government; it was not long before the party came to be seen as both a hostage and a guarantee for the government. True, the leaders favoured a 'war to the finish'. As for the unions, they had undertaken to avoid all industrial conflicts for the duration of the war. And it was not an uncommon sight to see the General-kommission (their supreme body) making common cause with employers and the military authorities in order to smash a work stoppage. As a result, the wave of strikes affecting Germany from April 1917 onwards took on a distinctly anti-union colouring; wildcat strikes broke out with growing frequency right up until the armistice, only to spread with even greater vigour from that moment on.[6]

These 'illegal' actions swept the old union structures clean out of the factories. In their place workers proceeded to elect delegates who would be answerable to the rank and file, and who were hostile to the existing hierarchy. The delegates met in works committees (Betriebsräte), prefiguring the workers' councils proper, elected on the same basis but for the purposes of political representation.[7] While one can point to the existence of councils as early as spring 1917, it was only in the autumn of 1918 that they began to spread so widely that, in the eyes of public opinion, they came to incarnate the mass revolutionary movement.[8] It was the naval mutinies which sparked off a movement that had been simmering for at least a year; civilians were quick on the uptake and, starting with the major ports (Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen), each town, each region began electing workers' and soldiers'—or workers' and peasants'—Councils.

In the beginning there can be no doubt that these councils arose spontaneously, but the situation soon settled down, and by December 1918-January 1919 it was already possible to take stock of things and to distinguish three categories of council, depending upon the size of the locality.

In most small and medium-sized towns the initiative was taken by the local SPD organization (generally in collaboration or in agreement with the local branch of the unions), either by arranging for the election of a council on a show of hands at a mass rally, or by designating the candidates itself. In rural areas councils were often formed without socialist participation, and bourgeois or agrarian delegates were not infrequent.[9]

In the big towns, notably the industrial ones, the SPD allied with the USPD (independent social democratic party, offspring of war-time pacifism) in order to control a council or to form it. Where the parties did not have the initiative, they arranged to have themselves coopted on to executive committees in sufficient numbers, even when the councils were elected by factory delegates—the purest form of workers' democracy. In some large towns, however, it was the 'left-wing radicals', the revolutionary wing of social democracy, who wielded the predominating influence. But, in general, the SPD was in control of the council organizations.[10]

From the point of view of the country as a whole, two councils assumed particular importance: the Greater Berlin Council and the Pan-German Council, constituted on the basis of nationwide elections. Both were led by social-democrat majorities. Thus, of the 489 delegates to the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils (16-20 December 1918), 292 belonged to the SPD, eighty-four to the USPD, while only ten were Spartakists.

One may conclude, from this rapid survey, that the spread of councils did not in itself express any project going beyond the establishment of a democratic republic within the framework of the capitalist regime.[11] While it is true that, from mid-November on, councils began replacing regional and local authorities all over Germany, the administration nevertheless stayed at its posts and the social power of the landowners and industrialists remained intact. It was within the framework of this power system that the change in political regime took place; a change sanctioned by the councils, moreover, since their national executive handed over the job of drawing up a constitution for the German Republic to a parliamentary assembly.

The fact that the councils were almost entirely dominated by the SPD was due to the existing balance of power between the various parties and revolutionary groups. But if the councils had no reality outside the parties and unions whose representatives populated their executive committees, this was due less to the existence of the workers' organizations than to the inevitable limitations upon any attempt to transcend social-democratic consciousness at the time. Radicality was as yet able to express itself only in terms of the project of factory committees and workers' councils.

One is inclined to wonder whether this was equally true of those countries where the councils wielded both political and social power, as was the case for a brief period in Bavaria and in Hungary.

The Bavarian monarchy fell on 7 November, and Kurt Eisner proclaimed the republic, which he intended should be organized along democratic lines. Five months later he was replaced by a first republic of soviets presided over by Ernst Toller, who in turn gave way to a second republic of soviets with the communist Eugene Levine at its head. The role of the councils in this merry-go-round of regimes was reduced to that of sounding board for the avatars of this inter-party struggle. For, here again, real power was in the hands of the SPD and the USPD, soon to be joined by the recently formed communist party. Thus, both Eisner's provisional government and Levine's council of people's commissars resulted from a coalition of parties which held together thanks to the lynchpin role played by the independent socialists. Despite the presence of anarchists, the councils themselves reflected these partisan cleavages.[12]

The situation was different in Hungary insofar as the socio-economic regime itself was shaken. Nationalization and land redistribution measures were planned, even if they did not lead to genuine socialization during the 133 days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (22 March-2 August 1919).

The significance of the councils in Hungary should be analysed in the light of the external situation on the one hand, and of the political forces at work on the other. It differs before and after the establishment of the Soviet regime.

The emergence of councils during the war[13] corresponds to the growing radicalization in the belligerent countries. From November 1917 onwards, violent strikes and sabotage occurred in the principal factories, and a general strike in June 1918 brought the economy to a standstill. These were very bitter strikes, whose political character was more pronounced than in other countries. Continued pressure from the workers led to increasing radicalization. In January 1919 several factories were confiscated from their owners and run by the local workers' councils.[14] Despite the existence of an aggressive minority which directly attacked the unions, the latter had long been solidly established and constituted a vital cog in working-class life. Together with the socialist party they controlled the Workers' Soviet of Budapest, the only one to play an important political role. Thus it backed Count Karolyi's government, in which the socialists were represented. It approved all the measures presented by the social-democrat leaders, notably the alliance with the communist group, which was demanding the establishment of a council regime.

In this respect, the establishment of such a regime in Hungary looks rather like an operation artificially grafted by the propagandists grouped around Bela Kun, who had received some political training during their captivity in Russia. Faced with the threat of invasion by the Entente powers, the socialists formed a government together with the communist leaders, hauling the latter from the gaols into which they had allowed them to be thrown shortly before.

The supreme authority in the new republic was represented by the Budapest Council. Following the April 1919 elections, its executive committee contained fifty-six socialists and twenty-four communists out of eighty members.[15] So the new regime rested, right from the outset, upon a compromise between the communists and socialists, the latter deciding in all disputed cases.[16]

Paradoxically, the reason why the socialists accepted what might otherwise look like a very poor bargain, even though they were both stronger and better established than the communists, was that they were being attacked from the left for their lack of a foreign policy capable of satisfying the nationalism of the majority of citizens. The Bolshevik project of creating a soviet regime as in Russia was shelved; Bela Kun, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, attempted to extricate Hungary from her tricky position vis-a-vis the Entente powers and the territorial claims of her neighbours. Having failed to untie this Gordian knot, Kun and his group were obliged to step down, having also shown themselves incapable of imposing a 'subjective' solution in a country where the 'objective' situation (the importance of rural areas, solid union implantation and a very moderate socialist party) was unfavourable to them.

On the local scene, the old administration continued to exercise its authority right through this period; nationally speaking, the councils had no existence outside the parties, whose instruments they were.

While in Hungary, despite its 'soviet' regime, there was no council ideology distinct from Bela Kun's bolshevik schema, England experienced a genuine movement in favour of free and autonomous workers' expression. This movement, known as the 'shop stewards' movement', combined two different phenomena.

On the one hand, before the war, the Socialist Labour Party and the Guild Socialists had been spreading propaganda in favour of workers' control. This was still only a timid plan to give workers some say in the running of their factory, and although both projects stipulated that the workers would be represented by their unions, the latter were resolutely opposed to any such scheme (as was the majority socialist party, the Labour Party).[17] But the idea was so well received by the metalworkers and miners that the Trades Union Congress ended by adopting, in 1918, the principle of joint control in those industries whose nationalization it was demanding.

On the other hand, the wartime period was also a time of great agitation, particularly among munitions workers and miners. Most union leaders backed the National Government and its war-time policies right up to the hilt![18] Since, on top of this, the unions had undertaken to abstain from all strike-backed wage claims, the workers felt obliged to turn to their shop stewards (originally little more than union recruiting agents, having no power to negotiate) in order to make themselves heard.

Discontent came to a head in 1915 following two initiatives by unions that had subscribed to an 'industrial truce' and had turned a blind eye to the practice of 'dilution' (employing semi- or unqualified workers to do qualified work) in munitions factories. The Clydeside metalworkers' strike (early 1915) confirmed the shop stewards in their new and 'illegal' role; now that they were organized into workers' committees they constituted the expression of rank-and-file opposition to all authority, whether employers' or unions'.

The Clydeside strike was followed by disputes in other sectors of the economy. An uninterrupted succession of work stoppages and violent confrontations took place between the outbreak of the great May 1917 strike (which had broken out in the munitions industry) and the miners' strike of 1920; the shop stewards played a leading role in all these disputes.[19] Each factory, each region set up its own workers' committee, delegates being elected on a non-union basis. In most cases, these movements originating in the rank-and-file clashed with the existing organizations.[20]

This phenomenon became very widespread in the first three or four years of its existence. Particularly vigorous among the metal-workers, the movement expanded after 1918. Regional committee leaders began to set up a national structure as early as November 1916, and by August 1917 a conference was attended by twenty-three committees. A national council was elected, but the committees preserved a good deal of autonomy.

As for the themes most frequently discussed by the shop stewards' movement, we should distinguish between those which are consubstantial so to speak, with the movement itself, demanding direct rank-and-file representation, the control of industry by the workers themselves and even the negation of the capitalist State, and those which were soon to be propagated by the national leadership. The latter were more politically marked in character and were to popularize slogans originating from the Russian Bolsheviks. As time went on, the distance separating the initial impetus and the movement's national council widened. While the rank-and-file movement declined following the end of the war, most of the delegates and committees being absorbed into the unions, the leaders, who now constituted a distinct group, agitated in favour of joining the communist party. We have come a long way from the ideological premises of 1916-19 (worker's control, setting up of factory organizations, negation of the State). The slogans had now become: conquest of the State, construction of State socialism, construction of a communist party. This evolution was complete by 1921, when the National Conference of the Shop Stewards' Movement declared that the proletariat alone was incapable of managing production without the socialist State; the unions were rehabilitated, and political action in the narrow sense of the term came to the fore.[21]

As can be seen, the shop stewards' and rank-and-file movement only represented something really radical and innovative in its first years, before it came to incarnate a precise political project. Its limitations arose out of the circumstances which gave birth to it: the complex problem of dilution, which was resolved when the unions returned to their restrictive, corporatist attitudes following the end of hostilities. At all events, the limits to the radical consciousness of the movement were those of a highly stratified working class. It would be another half-century before the re-emergence of wildcat strikes and rebellious shop stewards expressing the demands for autonomy of a levelled and homogeneous class.

In Italy, the rising revolutionary wave gave birth to some original thinking on the role of councils in the workers' struggle. The post-war period especially was marked by disputes between workers and bosses. Strikes intensified towards the middle of 1919 (metalworkers in the north, agricultural labourers, typesetters, textile workers, sailors).[22] The economic crisis, unemployment, the problems of demobilization, all worked to create an explosive situation: anything seemed possible, especially given that the majority of the Socialist Party (PSI) was 'maximalist', i.e. revolutionary, refusing to participate in any bourgeois government. The first factory occupations occurred in March 1919, at Bergamo, where a factory committee took control of production.[23] By the end of 1919 a network of councils in the Piedmontese metal industry involved 150,000 workers. A general strike broke out in Turin in April 1920 concerning legal time (introduced during the war, and which the employers were anxious to suppress). In fact, the strike rapidly turned political, the employers proving exceptionally intransigent and refusing to recognize a non-union workers' delegation. The movement also met with the resistance of the metalworkers' federation, the FIOM, which was hostile to the factory committees. With the PSI refusing to call for an extension of the strike to Italy as a whole, the dispute ended in a compromise that was far from satisfactory for the Turin metalworkers.

The September 1920 strike, on the other hand, broke out in Milan and affected the whole of Italy. Virtually everywhere it was accompanied by factory occupations and even workers' control. But this time the strike had been called by the FIOM as a tactical weapon aimed at breaking the employers' lock-out; it was certainly not a spontaneous and autonomous movement.[24] This strike too ended in capitulation: the promised legislation on 'workers' control' never saw the light of day.

Nevertheless, the phenomenon of rank-and-file organization had been stronger and more widespread in Italy than anywhere else. True, the climate reigning in the country was explosive, the particularly precocious development of fascism being a good indication of the closeness of social revolution. It was in the climate of revolutionary fever reigning in Turin early in 1919 that some young 'intransigent' socialists, active on the extreme left of the PSI, founded a review called Ordine Nuovo. The editorial committee included the future leaders of the Italian Communist Party: Togliatti, Tasca, Terracini, Gramsci. It is to the last of these that we owe an overall view of the problem of the workers' councils. Gramsci draws his inspiration from the modes of workers' representation which arose during the war, when it became quite common for workers' delegates to be elected for the purpose of maintaining discipline on the shop floor. This practice continued after the war, but was not officially recognized until February 1919, when 'internal commissions' were set up in order to supervise the fair application of the agreement which had just been signed by the FIOM and the employers regarding the Piedmontese metal-workers.[25]

Antonio Gramsci perceived the possibility of turning these commissions into workers' councils, i.e. into organizations elected by the entire rank-and-file (even non-unionized) and whose competence would not be limited solely to questions of wages, working hours and conditions.[26] He dealt with the problem of proletarian institutions since 1918, drawing lessons from the Russian Revolution, the English shop stewards' movement as well as from the ideas of the American socialist, Daniel De Leon. But his concern for the renewal of forms of class struggle is founded upon a preliminary critique of the unions which, he wrote, had developed into an unwieldy apparatus living by laws of its own, alien to the worker and external to the masses. The unions typified a period in which capital was dominant, they had become charged with a function inherent in a regime based on private property since they sold the labour force under commercial conditions in a competitive market. They were incapable of serving as an instrument in the radical renewal of society.[27]

Gramsci thought that the party too was unsuited to the new forms of proletarian struggle: existing in the political arena, it played the same role as the unions in the economic sphere, namely that of a competitive institution owing its existence to the bourgeois State. Parties and unions were no more than the agents (agenti) of the proletariat, to serve as instruments of impulsion (propulsione) of the revolutionary process.[28]

The modern form of struggle, Gramsci continued, was incarnated in the workers' councils. Their superiority over other structures stemmed from the fact that they assembled workers at their place of work, and in their capacity as producers, and not, as was the case with the unions, in their role as wage-earners. The councils stood for the negation of industrial legality: their 'revolutionary spontaneity' implied they were ready to declare class war at any moment.[29]

But the councils were not merely instruments of struggle. In the new society they were to take the place of the capitalists and assume all the functions of management and administration. Furthermore, their task would also be to improve the conditions of production as well as to increase output.[30]

Although close to the thinking of the German councillists on certain points, Gramsci's conception was not without a certain ambiguity. Unlike the Germans, Gramsci did not break completely with classical socialism, which held that party and unions were invested with the revolutionary task. Thus, following the failures of the strikes in April and September 1920, he declared, disappointed, that it was the party's task (a regenerated and re-organized party, it is true) to give the signal for the revolution, and not that for a strikers' rally. One should not exaggerate his criticisms of the party: the target for his fury was the historical PSI, but he never questioned the superiority of separate political action.[31] He constantly assigned the socialists the task of conquering the majority inside the councils, and this majority was to play an active role in the revolution.[32] Finally, far from denying the role of the unions, he recognized that they played a useful function of education and preparation for the class struggle.[33]

Did Gramsci's 'spontaneist' period, in which he even went so far as to talk of the proletariat's 'self-liberation', result from his idealization of the Russian soviets (about which he was ill-informed).?[34] Did it come from some ephemeral libertarian influence, since militant anarchists had been active in the Turin movement?[35] At all events, from 1921 Gramsci fell in step with the Third International's doctrine concerning councils. By April of that year he was writing: "The party is the highest form of organization; the unions and shop-floor councils are intermediary forms of organization".[36] Henceforth, he proclaimed, the task of "directing the spontaneity of the masses" ought no longer to fall upon the councils but upon the party, a powerfully organized and centralized, Bolshevik-type party.[37] Gramsci subsequently became leader of the young Italian Communist Party (PCI) and held high office in the Comintern; his council period was to be relegated to the bottom drawer of official communist history. In any case, his thinking on this subject was too marked with ambiguity, the audacity of his critique of the party was too illusory for him to be able to tread some marginal path, outside the orthodox communism with which he was to finish by identifying completely.

Despite similar situations of revolutionary ferment in a number of belligerent countries, it was only in Germany that a definite break with the past was made, and that we find the development of a theory of councils opposed to party communism.


From left-wing radicalism to left-wing communism

Council communism was not born along with councils themselves, although the appearance of the latter did precipitate its formulation. As a political theory it constitutes the culmination of a long tradition of radical opposition within the German social-democratic movement and the unions. The conflict with reformist tendencies is as old as socialist workers' organizations themselves. If we stick to the period following the 'laws on socialists',[38] we can see that a vigorous left-wing opposition began making itself heard within the ranks of the socialist party as early as 1890. Its spokesmen, known as the 'Young People' (Die Junge), protested against the bureaucratic and dictatorial atmosphere almost reigning in the party. The cult of the leader (Führerprinzip), they claimed, enabled an all-powerful leadership, paid by the party, to stifle any sign of revolutionary spirit and to continue to play the parliamentary game for all it was worth. Revolution had now become a slogan regularly repeated inside the Reichstag. But then, this purely parliamentary game was well-suited to the essentially reformist tastes of the leadership. The 'Young People' were excluded from the party at the Erfurt Congress (1891) and went on to found independent socialist groups. Such well-known publicists, anarchist militants and anarcho-syndicalists as Gustav Landauer and Fritz Kater were to emerge from the ranks of these independent socialists.

A similar battle was then raging within the trade union organization. An anti-authoritarian and revolutionary fraction had, since the Congress of Halberstadt (1892), been criticizing bitterly the narrow centralism and the purely reformist tactics of the leadership. The leadership's opponents demanded autonomy for local organizations (hence their nickname: 'the localists'), access to strike funds and greater initiative in the launching of industrial action for the rank-and-file sections. In 1897 they managed to set up an independent fraction where, under the influence of French revolutionary syndicalism after 1907, libertarian ideas came to predominate.

The other oppositional current began to develop in the early years of this century. Although it was Marxist, its reading of Marx and Engels was far more radical than that of social democratic orthodoxy. Left-Wing radicalism, while violently opposed to anarchism, had a number of points in common with it, notably its mistrust of party apparatus and its faith in the autonomous practices of the masses. Following the elimination of libertarian elements from the socialist and union organizations it was this current which took up the standard, in anticipation of post-war council communism.

There were three main currents of thought within the German social democratic party at the turn of the century. The revisionist right, without always acknowledging its debt to Edward Bernstein, called for a policy akin to that of the left-wing bourgeois parties, similar to the French radical party or the English Liberals. Then there was the 'Marxist Centre', in control of the party, and whose authorized theoretician was Karl Kautsky. Under cover of strict doctrinal orthodoxy (contrary to the revisionists, he believed in the inevitability of revolution), Kautsky lent his authority to a markedly prudent tactic that was scarcely any different from the one Bernstein was calling for. A third family of thought emerged during the Russian Revolution of 1905-7. The left-wing radicals (Linksradikalen), as they were called, gathered around Rosa Luxemburg, whose book The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Union first appeared in 1906.[39]

Drawing inspiration from her experience of the Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg put forward in this book a number of ideas which had already been in circulation for some years, notably among the Dutch Tribunists.[40] She shows that, in European Russia, revolutionary actions—strikes, revolts, street demonstrations—appeared spontaneously, unprovoked by any party. Russian social democracy was insufficiently established among the proletariat, with the result that the workers themselves created the revolutionary organizations the situation demanded: strike committees factory committees, workers' councils. The Radicality of their actions was unfettered by the existence of a heavily structured party or of a powerful, but soporific union. In Germany, the spontaneity of the workers was stifled by bureaucratization of the apparatus, by organization fetishism, the cult of the leader. Hundreds of permanent party and union officials went on applying their own policy, cut off from the rank-and-file, reluctant to undertake any bold initiatives for fear of jeopardizing their magnificent organizational edifice, which no longer served any useful purpose. Preservation of the means (the organization) now came to take priority over the objective (the revolution).[41]

In her dispute with Kautsky, Luxemburg held that organization was not a static phenomenon but a process: workers provide themselves with the organizational forms most appropriate to their struggle. The artificial separation of economic and political action is absent from these organizations. The party's parliamentarian policies, and the strictly wage-demand-oriented policies of the unions, are to be submerged beneath the development of spontaneous actions such as mass strikes. Tactically speaking this quarrel took on a more concrete character in the years 1908-10, when the party leadership ruled out a general strike as a means of fighting for the suppression of the plural electoral college in Prussia.

But although Rosa Luxemburg developed a theory of mass spontaneity which permitted her to stigmatize the party's immobilism and its congenital reformism, she failed to draw all the organizational and theoretical conclusions which flowed from this theory. To the end of her life she remained a militant profoundly attached to the party of the masses, to the hierarchy, to the congresses and their motions—in short, to everything which had made up the essence of pre-1914 social-democracy.[42]

The Dutch, and Anton Pannekoek in particular, did draw all the conclusions, and notably the organizational ones, from their radical critique of Kautskyite socialism. Their discussion of the general strike took place rather earlier, in 1903, and their attacks on the reformism of the SDAPH (Social Democratic Workers' Party of Holland) led them to break away and found a new party (the SDP, Social Democratic Party) in 1909. This party never attracted more than a few hundred activists and it stayed outside the Second International (which didn't want it anyway), but this break did illustrate the extent of the divergences between Gorter, Pannekoek and Roland-Holst on the one hand, and Troelstra, who was a faithful follower of Kautsky, on the other.[43]

The Tribunists' major criticism of Troelstra and his Dutch followers concerned their entirely mechanistic conception of Marxism. While it is true that the proletariat's importance derives from its place and its function in the productive process, said Pannekoek, one should not imagine that the outbreak of revolution is inevitable. Similarly, organization is important for the simple reason that it renders the masses strong, disciplined, fusing the will of each and everyone into a single will. True, parliamentarianism is a powerful means of increasing the cohesion of the working class. And alongside this, syndicalism is necessary in order to arouse workers to fight and induce them to accept class discipline. But, Pannekoek points out, "socialism will not come about merely because all men finally admit its superiority over capitalism and its aberrations".[44] The working class must, in addition, be conscious of the necessity of the struggle and of socialism. Pannekoek thought this subjective factor was extremely important, while Kautsky ignored it. Class consciousness, the former held, is acquired through engagement in mass action, led by the workers themselves. Parliamentarianism on the other hand, which was the leadership's essential activity, is not the class struggle. Certainly in the past it made it possible to unify the proletariat, but it could never lead to socialism. As for the unions, they are an institution by now perfectly integrated into the capitalist system, since their function is to sell the labour force.

This critique led Pannekoek to relativize the role of the party and the unions, without, however, going so far as to examine them from the viewpoint of historically situated and dated organizational forms. In his quarrel with Kautsky between 1911 and 1913, on the other hand, he denies the possibility of transforming the existing State into a socialist State by means of an electoral majority, and he declares that the bourgeois State will have to be destroyed utterly (vernichtet), its power annihilated (aufgëlost).[45]

But this revolution cannot be accomplished peacefully; it will not be brought about by the present leaders' prudent policies. It will require all the might and the will of the proletariat in action. Parliamentarianism and union demands are no longer enough. New forms of capitalism (monopolies, cartels, the internationalization of production and markets) have given rise to new forms of struggle: mass actions. The passive attitude of the 'marxist centre' stems from its fear that, by 'ill-considered' initiatives, the masses will destroy their patiently constructed organizations. The chiefs, with Kautsky at their head, saw their role as that of brake, a check on 'wildcat' initiatives. For Pannekoek, this was a singularly restricted conception of organization, lingering over its external forms, its visible structures. And this at a time when the emergence of an economy based on large units had aroused in the proletariat a feeling of common belonging (Zusammengehörigkeit): it is this spiritual factor which leads men to organize, to develop structures. One may throw over external forms, the subjective element is indestructible.[46]

On the eve of the war, the Dutch Marxists had thus gone a long way towards an organizational and theoretical break with the Second International. They had demonstrated the limited character of parliamentary struggle (without, however, entirely rejecting it as yet), the capitalist essence of unions (whose usefulness they nevertheless continued to underline), and had made the destruction of political power the number-one task of the revolutionary movement. Finally (together with the Bulgarians and the Russians it is true), they had shown it was possible to break with the social-democratic movement. But above all, they drew lasting lessons as to the relativity of the forms the class struggle was capable of assuming, from the mass movements of recent years (1893, 1903, 1905-7, 1903, 1910). It was quite natural, then, that they should adopt the new organizational structures which were to emerge during and immediately after the First World War.

The war precipitated the latent tendencies in left-wing radicalism. What had started out as a simple critique of orthodox socialism was to develop into both a social movement and a revolutionary theory in its own right.

Two kinds of factor worked in favour of this. On the one hand, the war had brought to a head German social democracy's desire (but the same phenomenon had occurred at the same moment in the other belligerent countries) for integration into bourgeois society and even (after November 1918) to perpetuate it. This was, in fact, the underlying significance of the 'Sacred Union' (Burgfriede, or 'civil peace') wherein the SPD, by its votes in favour of war credits, its abstention from any meaningful opposition, implicitly approved the German government's war policy. Parallel to this, the unions, by deliberately avoiding involvement in industrial disputes, and by even going so far as to cooperate with the military authorities in preventing or breaking strikes which began to simmer spontaneously in factories throughout the Reich from 1916 on, had set themselves up as enemies of the workers. It very soon became clear that it would only be possible to carry on the struggle in spite of, and against the union leaderships. A whole section of the German proletariat thus fell vulnerable to the ideas of the left opposition.[47] In less than three years, this had been transformed from a handful of intellectuals into an imposing mass movement. By June 1917 the left opposition accounted for more than half the membership of the union organization, and the spring 1917 breakaway showed just how far the party itself had been affected.

Theory too leaped forward, emboldened by the example of the Russian Revolution and the appearance of councils inside the Reich itself. The constitution of autonomous bodies, both in the factories and in provinces and towns, was due to the causes mentioned above. The moment the workers' leaders began fulfilling the repressive functions of the employers and the police, each movement, each strike became a revolt. Especially since the slightest action inside a factory almost automatically resulted in the sacking of union officials, cessation of the payment of union dues and the improvisation of temporary structures. Thus, even if to begin with a strike was purely concerned with, say, a wage claim, it nevertheless developed rapidly into an action in which political and economic questions fused to undermine the social status quo.

Left-wing radical theory fed voraciously off these examples of mass spontaneity. The organization of councils as the expression of autonomous struggle became the fundamental concept of the new radicality.

Right from the beginning of the war, left-wing militants had sought to distinguish themselves from patriotic social democracy. Towards the end of 1914 Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, Otto Rühle and Karl Liebknecht established a small oppositional circle, the 'Internazionale' group, later to be known as the 'Spartakus Group'. Liebknecht broke with party discipline in December 1914 by voting against military credits, and he was followed by Rühle in the spring of 1915. Their resolute opposition to the war united all left-wing radicals, with their hatred of all leaderships (Instanzen), parliamentary leaders, paid officials, party propagandists. But divergences soon appeared within the ranks of the extreme left. The origins of this split can be traced back to the preceding period and to the attitude adopted towards social democracy.

A right wing, for whom the Spartakist leaders acted as spokesmen,[48] had no wish to break with the party, fearing that by so doing they would 'cut themselves off from the masses'. Underlying this argument was their reluctance to break with the old organizational forms and with the old Second International habits, object of so much obloquy in the past.

This wing linked up with the centrist fraction of the party, the 'Sozialdemokratische Arbeitsgemeinschaft', in April 1917 in order to found the independent social-democratic party (USPD), which took a very moderate line, and whose organization scarcely differed from that of the SPD. The other wing was more extremist, and followed their ideological premises right through to their conclusion. The extreme left-wing radicals were made up of local groups, independent of each other, although some of them had already been bastions of the opposition before the outbreak of war. This was the case, for example, of the Berlin group, gathered around the review Lichtstrahlen (edited by Julian Borchardt); the Bremen group, around the Bremer-Burger-Zeitung and, subsequently, the Arbeiterpolitik (with Karl Radek, Paul Fröhlich, Johann Knief), which was heavily influenced by Pannekoek's thinking; the Hamburg group, which edited Kampf, under the direction of Heinrich Laufenberg and Fritz Wolfheim. Other extreme left-wing groups were active in Dresden, Frankfurt and Brunswick. Unlike the Spartakists, who had not entirely broken with social democracy, the extremists were hoping to individualize themselves, organizationally speaking. In their view, the task of the future for the proletariat was to construct its own organization and conduct its own policy.[49]

Although they managed to cut all their bridges (and especially the financial ones) with the party, the extremists only came together in a distinct structure in l920. But as early as autumn 1915 they had labelled themselves 'Internationals', after the Bremen and Hamburg delegates had approved Lenin's proposal to construct the Third Intemational at the Zimmerwald Conference (September 1915), while the Spartakists had preferred to maintain their links with the Second Intemational.

Thus, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, the Internationals[50] were very clearly moving away from the Spartakists on two points. For one thing they were demanding an organization built along different lines from the old forms found in their entirety in the USPD. They wanted an organization arising out of the struggle itself and action-orientated (Aktionsfähig).[51] Secondly, in order to mark their complete estrangement from pre-war organized socialism, they planned to construct a new International. It was these ideas that Pannekoek advocated in the organ of the Zimmerwald Left, which he edited with his compatriot, Henrietta Roland-Holst.[52]

With the October Revolution in Russia, the November 1918 revolution in Germany and the growth of factory committees and workers' councils, the Internationals had at last found a concrete form for the organization of their struggle. Soviet Russia illustrated their own notion of dictatorship of the proletariat, with power emanating from the base and rising towards the town and rural councils.[53] As a result of their enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution they altered their label, and in November the ISD (International Socialists of Germany) became the IKD (International Communists of Germany), publishing a paper called Der Kommunist, propagating the slogan: 'All power to the soviets'.

Paradoxically, the Russian Revolution brought the Internationals and the Spartakists together again; in view of the extent of revolutionary turbulence they decided to merge and found the German Communist Party (KPD).[54]

The constitutive congress took place in Berlin, 30-31 December 1918, in the midst of great exaltation. But this was not enough to wipe out divergences, and the antagonistic currents were to crystallize around three questions. What form of organization should dominate in the new party (centralization, or decentralization with autonomy for the local sections)? Should the new party vote for the Constituent Assembly (and thus participate in the parliamentary institutions)? Finally, what should be the party's attitude towards the unions (entry into the existing unions in order to stimulate opposition from within, or construction of new, even original organizations?).

The delegates divided into two blocs more or less along the lines separating the left and right wings of the old left-wing radicals. A right-wing minority (Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Karl Radek, Paul Levi) favoured electoral participation, entry into the existing unions and a centralized, hierarchized organization. Although (through the intermediary of Radek) this group had the blessing of the Bolsheviks, it was nevertheless very attached to the spirit of social democracy, which it intended to perpetuate in the new party. The majority, on the other hand, emerged as the heirs to the boldest themes of left-wing radicalism. It contained most of the extremist groups (the Bremen, Hamburg, Dresden, etc., Internationals) and the left wing of the Spartakists which, for the first time, came out into the open to express its disagreement with the respected leaders.[55]

The confusion between Spartakists (starting with its leaders) and the revolutionary wing of the left-wing radicals was deliberately encouraged by communist historiography in subsequent years. In reality, however, the Spartakists were always rather more cautious than the Internationals, especially where tactics were concerned. It was clear right from the inaugural congress that the former intended to construct a mass party capable of playing a role in the institutional political life of the future Weimar Republic, while the latter, the Internationals, were more interested in crystallizing their thirst for revolutionary action in some completely new form of organization.

This unhappy menage à deux was to last until the expulsion of the group (the majority group at that!) coming to be known as the left-wing communists (Linkskommunisten) at the Heidelberg Congress (October 1919).

In April 1920 the expelled group founded the KAPD (German Workers' Communist Party). Right from the start this new formation boasted 38,000 members, or rather more than half the KPD, which was left drained of life until its merger with the majority of the USPD (in December 1920), the latter bringing with it a dowry of some 300,000 militants. The party within which the left-wing communists now found themselves was supposed to incarnate the principles conceived and propagated since 1915. Its programme (inspired by Pannekoek) utterly rejected parliamentarianism and the unions. It sought to remain a party of confirmed communists working to develop the revolutionary consciousness of the masses and the struggle on the shop floor through organizations within the enterprise (Betriebsorganisationen). The new party was not organized along federal lines, as some might have hoped, but along the lines of 'proletarian centralism', the decisions of the highest bodies being binding.[56] Its refusal to work with the reformist unions led the KAPD to assume the programmatic leadership and long-term direction of the new factory organizations as well.

These organizations emerged during the war and their numbers increased rapidly after November 1918. They began to unite in the summer of 1919, notably in the mines and in the metalworking industries. But it was in February 1920 (before the creation of the KAPD) that factory committees (Betriebsorganisationen) came together to form the General Workers' Union of Germany (AAUD). This organization was articulated around the enterprise, the basic cell being formed by the factory or workshop; these were then organized at local, provincial (Wirtschaftsbezirk) and Reich levels. Its aim was to generate revolutionary agitation within the factories with a view to the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a council republic. In 1920 the AAUD had about 100,000 members, but the following year membership declined irremediably.

The decline of council organizations (principally the AAUD, but also the anarcho-syndicalist union, the FAU) flowed from the centrifugal tendencies, apparent right from their birth, as well as from the political and social situation in the country. Factory organizations mushroomed during 1919, to the detriment of the unions, which fell back considerably, especially in the heavy industries of the Ruhr and central Germany. At first factory committees were formed spontaneously, without any precise ideological attachments. It was only towards the end of 1919 that ideological divergencies began to surface. Firstly because the communist party, under Paul Levi's leadership, was warning its militants of the dangers of 'anarchist' tendencies, inviting them to vote for the legal factory councils and not to take part in extra-union organizations. Secondly because, from December 1919 onwards, the anarcho-syndicalists, who had until then shared the views of the left-wing communists, now adopted Rudolf Rocker's anarchist- inspired programme, denying the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat and of the use of violence. The new programme returned to the traditional (revolutionary) syndicalist view, namely that the trade union, the instrument of economic struggle, was destined to become the fundamental organizational unit in the society of the future.

As opposed to the leaders of the KPD and the FAUD (German Free Workers' Union), the council theoreticians were thinking in terms of structures suited to both political and economic struggle, constituted at the place of work and not at the level of the locality (as in the case of the unions) or the old trade unions (the organizational base of the FAUD).

The emergence of a theory of councils coincides with that of factory organizations, though it is impossible to say which came first. At most we may presume that the example of the IWW (the American revolutionary organization based on industrial unions) was not without influence on the thinking of the Hamburg propagandists.[57] In other words, when the AAUD was formed, only some of the factory committees actually joined it; on top of that, two tendencies began pulling the organization in opposing directions right from the first months of its existence. The Brunswick tendency, close to the left wing of the USPD, followed the IWW example, advocating the industry-wide union as the basic form of organization. It left the AAUD shortly afterwards and slid into obscurity. The other tendency, left-wing, was more deeply prejudicial to the cohesion of the Union. This was the so-called 'unitanst' (Einheitsorganisationstendenz) tendency which rejected the KAPD's control over the Union and demanded instead a unitary organization that would be both politically and economically oriented, bypassing political parties. This tendency was especially strong in Dresden, the fief of its chief theoretician and spokesman, Otto Rühle, who very early (in December 1920) made his section independent of the KAPD. In October 1921 his organization, the East Saxony section, led a number of other local groups out of the KAPD and founded the AAUD-E (German General Workers' League Unitary Organization).

Aside from these centrifugal tendencies, the mass council organizations, the Leagues, were further handicapped by the overall situation in the country: inflation, growing unemployment, fiercer repression, especially since the failure of the March 1921 'action' in the course of which an embryonic insurrection was harshly stamped out by the army and the police. After 1921 the AAUD began to lose its mass character, evolving into a marginal group. It shifted away from the KAPD in 1927 and in 1931, it formed the KAU (Communist Workers' Union) together with the remnants of the AAUD-E. As its name suggests, the KAU had no pretentions to being a mass workers' movement but consisted of a group of propagandists fighting "to make the councils the instrument of class will".[58]

The KAPD suffered a similarly rapid decline after 1921, torn by personal and ideological quarrels. The principal disagreements concerned the binding nature of the decisions of the highest bodies, relations with the AAUD and the question of membership of the Third International. Local groups were becoming less and less autonomous, while centralism was gradually gaining the upper hand over federalist principles, and the AAUD rapidly became a union appendix to a party congratulating itself on having brought together the 'avant-garde elements'. One final question of practical importance exacerbated the party's already considerable difficulties: should militants take part in purely economic struggles (Lohnkampf)? The Berlin leadership, dominated by Karl Schröder (backed up on doctrinal terrain by the Dutchman Herman Gorter), was exhibiting some singularly dictatorial and dogmatic tendencies. In March 1922 Schröder was outvoted and expelled from the party. So he formed his own 'Essen Tendency' (Essener Richtung), with its own paper, its own congress and its 'own' AAUD. Consequently from 1922 onwards two KAPDs coexisted alongside each other, but their numbers were derisory, with 12,000 militants in the Berlin tendency at the end of 1922, and only 600 in the Essen wing.[59]

To begin with, most of the Essen tendency's activities were taken up with the establishment of a Fourth International. This attempt in itself would only be of passing interest had it not followed immediately upon the heels of the KAPD's imbroglio with the Third International, which had caused something of a stir within the International and which marked the emergence of a communist theory of councils as opposed to the Comintern's party communism.


Council communism and party communism

We have seen that left-wing communism as it emerged in 1918 follows in the footsteps of the left-wing radicalism of the preceding period. The Bolsheviks belonged to this radical opposition in the Second International. They even (like the Dutch in 1909) went as far as breaking organizationally with Russian social democracy in 1903. Throughout the war, and more especially after the October Revolution, the Bolshevik leaders remained very close to the German extreme left, especially the Bremen Group. Both Bolsheviks and German 'Internationals' found themselves in the Zimmerwaldian Left (though not the Spartakists, who were opposed to the construction of a new international) entrusting Pannekoek and Roland-Holst with editing its official organ, Vorbote.[60]

The Russian Revolution was enthusiastically welcomed by all radical socialists, and especially by the Internationals, who saw in it the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat through the councils.[61] Their enthusiasm was all the greater in that Lenin's recent pamphlet, State and Revolution (published in Russia in l918), explicitly adopted the ideas Pannekoek had expressed in his dispute with Kautsky over the destruction of the bourgeois State and of political power as such. The future left-wing communists saw in it a charter for their own revolutionary aspirations; Lenin had formulated the classic themes of the Linksradikalen: destruction of the State, rejection of elections (and hence of parliamentarianism), the advent of a free and equal association of producers.[62] True, closer reading of the pamphlet reveals some rather different propositions. For Lenin stated also that there would still be a (transitory) State in the post-revolutionary period, exercising an extremely rigorous control and, like all States, repressive.[63]

Divergences only became public in the course of 1919, when the left-wing communists (now in the KPD) realized that Moscow, and shortly afterwards the Third Intemational, were backing the right wing of the party, in other words those elements which favoured the worst deviations of social democracy: the cult of organization for organization's sake, parliamentarianism, unionism, leader-worship. Following the assassination of its historic leaders (Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Jogiches), the 'rightist' Levi took over the party leadership (at the end of April 1919) and imposed a policy of 'entryism' into the unions, of electoral participation, by way of a stream of decisions without appeal and congresses meeting under irregular conditions.[64] Opponents were qualified pell-mell as anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists and, at the Heidelberg congress in October 1919, Levi announced that all those who disagreed with his views should leave the party, and he actually gained a majority in favour of expelling ... the majority! And that at a time when the unions had been utterly discredited, when workers' leagues were springing up all over the country, when more and more workers were boycotting elections in favour of direct action.

In autumn 1919 the left-wing communists came round to the view that Levi was becoming increasingly tempted by social-democratic opportunism and that they, the expelled group, were the true representatives of revolutionary communism. They consequently formed their own, new communist party, whose place they thought was in the Third Intemational. Their desire to join the new organization which Moscow had just created resulted from something of a misunderstanding. They were convinced Lenin would recognize them as communists as soon as he had a moment to talk it out with them and let himself be persuaded of the KPD's opportunism.

Unfortunately for them, the KPD's opportunism only existed because it corresponded to the policy of the new intemational, hence to Moscow's policy. Right from the KPD's inaugural congress Radek had come out wholeheartedly in favour of the right wing, and it was through his auspices that Levi took over the party leadership. Lenin himself, in a letter to the left-wing communists dated September 1919, had warned against non-participation in elections, and against the boycotting of unions and legal factory committees, and had described their attitude as 'an infantile disorder'.[65] He was even more incisive in his famous pamphlet on 'left-wing communism' written in spring 1920 and handed to delegates at the Second Congress of the Communist International, abandoning his earlier equivocal stance and explicitly condemning the 'Dutch leftists'. He advocated a disciplined, centralized party, taking very little notice of the federalist line favoured by the majority of German communists. Within the unions, he distinguished between leaders and masses, only the former being corrupt; from this he concluded that entry into the unions was necessary in order to win over the masses and dislodge the leadership. Similarly, he insisted upon the absolute necessity of participation in bourgeois parliaments insofar as the masses were still attached to them, and in all other bourgeois institutions capable of being entered. The parliamentary game must be exploited in all its forms: electoral alliances, compromises, collaboration. This policy being justified, in Lenin's view, by the overriding need to raise the consciousness of the masses at all costs, and to prepare the way for the soviets. The revolution needs a mass party and, in Westem countries, quantity must take precedence over quality.[66]

Despite the ideological gap existing between Moscow and the left-wing communists from the outset, the latter waited two whole years before giving up hope and leaving the Third International. The KAPD sent three successive delegations to Moscow, two in the course of the summer of 1920, and one in the autumn. Otto Rühle, who travelled there in May, came back disenchanted, talking about the centralized system and the dictatorship of the party.[67] He broke with the KAPD on his return, taking with him the East Saxony region. The Party leadership was unconvinced by his report and three of the leaders, among them Gorter and Schröder, went to Moscow to see for themselves in November 1920.

Meanwhile, the Second Congress of the Communist International had just condemned 'left-wing communism' by refusing to accept the KAPD. The party's line on parliament and the unions was judged 'inadequate'. Its programme was described as "capitulating to [revolutionary] syndicalist opinion".[68] Furthermore, points 9 and 11 (relating to work inside the unions and in parliament) of the twenty-one conditions of admission approved at the same congress clearly contradicted the KAPD programme.

Gorter, who was determined to organize a revolutionary opposition inside the Communist International, nevertheless managed to obtain temporary admission as a 'sympathizing party', with consultative status.[69] But Gorter's plans came to nothing, and after the Third Communist International Congress (summer 1921) the KAPD was ordered to merge with the KPD. It was the end of an illusion, and henceforth Gorter and the Essen tendency devoted themselves to setting up a Fourth International. This, the KAI (the Communist Workers' International), was founded in 1922 and only existed on paper, attracting a few hundred militants, mostly German and Dutch.[70]

Despite these organizational avatars, from the middle of 1920 onwards, council theory was no longer merely the most extreme expression of left-wing radicalism, but had emerged as being diametrically opposed to Bolshevik ideology as shared by those communist parties which had subscribed to the conditions imposed by the Comintern. From this moment on we can begin to speak of a council communism, carrying on the radical tradition of Marxism and opposed to party communism, heir to the opportunism of the Second Intemational.

Consequently, council theory originally posed as a virulent critique of the very party which was to be known later on as the 'orthodox' or 'official' communist party, and which eventually became the 'Marxist-Leninist' party. In place of unions and parties, council communism proposes natural, i.e. historical, groupings of the masses: the councils. Finally, it replaced the Russian Revolution in the context of the historical evolution of capitalism by looking upon it as a bourgeois revolution.

Parliamentananism, party and unions, the councillists claimed, are forms of struggle adapted to another, pre-revolutionary, age. During this historical phase, which ended more or less with the First World War, the proletariat was not very numerous and was utterly atomized. It needed an organization to defend its immediate interests, leaders to represent it in the institutions of the bourgeois State. In that period the unions undeniably played a positive role, extracting from the capitalists concessions indispensable to the improvement of workers' well-being. Similarly the socialist parties unified the class, which thus found itself individualized and represented en bloc.[71] But, rapidly, as the workers grew in numbers, these organizations external to the working class began generating their own bureaucracy, which made itself increasingly independent of the masses and tended to defend its own interests. As a result, the organizations started to identify with the capitalist system and hence to obstruct the revolutionary struggle.[72]

While the proletariat was naturally reformist in the pre-First World War period, in the following phase it aspired to revolution. It was no longer concerned with obtaining concessions from employers or the State, but with the suppression of both. Given this objective, which is inherent in the proletariat, the old organizations and the old tactics (those of the old social-democratic movement) had become a brake upon the development of new forms of action which are essentially mass actions.[73]

No doubt, the left-wing radicals had demonstrated the short-comings of parliamentarianism at any price before the war, pointing to the way it was practised by the socialist chiefs. But they did admit that it had a certain utility in the education of the masses and as a propaganda instrument. The International Socialists (ISD) themselves continued to express this view right up to the eve of the Russian Revolution.[74] As for the Dutch Marxists, they had very early on refused to assimilate the notion of parliamentary struggle to that of revolutionary struggle.[75] But no-one could possibly harbour the illusion after social democracy had behaved as capitalism's saviour in November 1918 and after. Otto Rühle even went so far as to consider that a party was incapable, by definition, of being anything other than a bourgeois institution; the term 'revolutionary party' seemed to him to be a nonsense.[76]

The unions fulfilled the same function of compromise in the economic domain as the parties on the political scene. They are merely an institution functioning within the framework of bourgeois society and, as the war had so strikingly shown, they act as a powerful shield for it. So it would be utterly absurd to think of turning the unions into revolutionary instruments. As 'organs of capital', the unions aspired to nothing more than recognition by the ruling apparatus.[77] The very development of trade unionism necessarily leads it into conflict with the working class, and the revolutionary struggle begins the moment workers decide to organize themselves outside union structures. The union leaders cling to their positions and to their new social status (for their union role has turned these former workers into petit bourgeois), summoning up all their strength in order to oppose the revolution and communism.[78]

The Third International leadership had imposed the conception of a mass communist party on communists in the West. As a result of this they everywhere encouraged the unification of revolutionary minorities with the left wing of social democracy. Thus, the KPD was transformed overnight from a group of a few thousand members into a powerful party with more than 300,000 members. The council communists attacked this tactic which, in their view, could only bring about a situation where the leaders dominated. For the great majority of these newcomers were far from having attained a communist consciousness, and this could only mean that they would hand over responsibility to their leaders. Under these conditions, the revolution could lead only to a party, but not to a class dictatorship. When a class is not yet ready for revolution, no-one can carry it through in its place. And when a minority seizes power and holds on to it in the name of the proletariat, it is merely following a neo-Blanquist line, not communism. It is important to deliver the workers not only from their physical and material subjection to the bourgeoisie, but also from their spiritual enslavement. But this immense and difficult task cannot be undertaken by some resolute avant-garde.[79] The proletarian revolution will be the work of the masses as a whole, and if they allow a party to take power in their place then all that will have been achieved is a bourgeois revolution. For the revolt against capital is also a revolt against all the old organizational forms.[80]

This brings us to the heart of council theory. The councils were not simply new forms of organization arisen to replace the old. They were also the expression of the class locked in struggle.[81] In this new phase of the struggle the proletariat was seeking to destroy the State and wage labour. It had come to realize that a revolution does not consist of a change of majority in parliament or in the fact of a political party coming to power. New forms of production, large economic units, the internationalization of markets and the development of monopolies had brought about a transformation of the worker's mentality. He now wanted to be master of his own fate and, first and foremost, of the basis of all societies: the means of production. But, although the working class already possessed the necessary material strength (numbers, but also its productive function) to overthrow its masters, it was still too impregnated with bourgeois ideology to have a clear conscience about it.[82] In consequence, the proletarian revolution was to take an entire epoch, resulting from a slow process of ripening among the masses, from an ever-growing consciousness of the tasks awaiting it.

Obviously, in this new phase of the struggle the proletariat cannot hope to rely on its old organizations now allied with capitalism. They were suited to a form of struggle in which leaders held sway over passive masses; in which revolution was conceived as an operation that had been foreseen and planned for in advance—by the leadership. The proletarian revolution, conversely, was to be the fruit of a spontaneous struggle waged by the class as a whole. New, more appropriate forms of organization would spring forth. But there was no need to invent them, for they already possessed a concrete historical existence: the workers' councils.[83]

Admittedly, the emergence of these councils was not followed by the advent of a communist society. The backward economic conditions of Russia in 1917 had prevented the working class from coming to power. It could have happened in Germany in November 1918, if the workers had not been halted in their tracks by the conceptions which social democracy had been inculcating in them for years. These historical examples at least proved that the time for mass action had arrived, that communism would be established by the councils.[84]

The fact that the councils only had a very limited historical existence (in Russia they rapidly became State organs, the docile instruments of party domination) leads one to wonder whether the council communists restricted their role to the pre-revolutionary period or not. The answers to this question are not really very uniform. Most theoreticians, however, attribute a double function to them, seeing in them both a revolutionary organrzation and the basis of future communist society. That is, they are supposed to act both as a unit for struggle and destruction in the revolutionary period. and as wielders of economic (above all, the management of production) and political (dictatorship of the proletariat) powers in the subsequent phase.[85] But while all are agreed on this, some go on to assign the proletariat the task of forming councils right away, while others see councils merely as the organs of a future council State.[86]

As long as we stick to the critique of party communism and to the role of councils in the revolutionary process and in communism's transitional phase, most members of the council movement are more or less in agreement. Differences arise when one tries to answer the age-old question of the present organization of revolutionaries. The advent of a network of councils would signal a very advanced stage of class consciousness: by assuming responsibility for the abolition of profit-based society themselves, the workers would thereby demonstrate that they had acquired a genuinely communist mentality. Until then, those with a clear awareness of the tasks, the communists, constituted a minority. Should they organize themselves, should they intervene in the workers' struggles to show them the way ahead? Then, if they were to come together in a joint organization, what sort of structure should this have?

All these questions gave rise to heated debate in councillist circles and continue to divide them to this day. Schematically, we can say that the great majority of council communists are opposed to the idea of any external group directing the struggle inside factories. Similarly, in principle, the council movement is hostile to the party communists' views on centralism, discipline and hierarchy. That said, in fact one finds nuances covering all colours of the spectrum bounded by two poles, the one tending towards organization, the other towards spontaneity.

At the time when council communism was incarnated in a genuine movement, roughly during the 1920s, there was a great temptation to construct a councillist party. This tendency was represented by the KAPD leaders, and especially their theoretician, Herman Gorter. Gorter (1864-1927) was one of the great Dutch poets of the impressionist school. He began to play an active role in the SDAP (Dutch Social Democratic Party) from 1896, opposing the revisionist tendency. After 1907 he joined the oppositional group which was to found the tiny Socialist Party (SDP) in 1909 (with Pannekoek, Van Ravesteyn and Wynkoop). In 1918 he took part in the foundation of the Dutch communist party, before travelling to Germany, where he joined the left wing of the KPD. From 1920 on he became the theoretiaan of both the German KAP (Essen tendency) and its Dutch counterpart, which he managed to bring together to form a Communist Workers' International (KAI) in 1922.[87]

In Gorter's view the proletariat needed two kinds of organization: those based on the place of work, the factory, and those bringing 'enlightened' militants together. The former would constitute workers' leagues while the others would form the party. The workers' league is a mass organization concerned with every-day struggle in the factory. But the drawback of the league is its tendency to reformism, confining itself to wage claims. Or, conversely, as a result of an erroneous evaluation of the situation, it is liable to utopianism. The party, on the other hand, is there to steady the helm: it is capable of pointing the way ahead since it is composed of that fraction (however minimal) of the working class which possesses the knowledge and a clear consciousness of the revolutionary objectives. The Western proletariat needed these 'pure' parties, reminders of the one formed by the Bolsheviks in 1902-3. But the party must not seek to gain power for its own ends, for the revolutionary dictatorship is to be that of the entire class. In any case, Gorter prophesied, the proletariat of the industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America is far too numerous for a dictatorship of the party to be possible. The party of pure communists prefigures the political councils, while the unions anticipate the advent of economic councils.[88]

Gorter's organizational conceptions were not all that different from Lenin's own; a party-union duality, with the former taking precedence over the latter had after all been set forth in What is to be Done? as early as 1902.

Nor did Otto Rühle (1874-1943) entirely abandon this line, except insofar as he advocated a 'unitary' organization. Rühle had been a teacher with a deep interest in pedagogic and psychological problems as well as a social-democrat deputy in the Reichstag when the war broke out. He followed Liebknecht in voting against the war credits in March l915. Right from the foundation of the KPD he found himself in the left-wing opposition, which he subsequently followed into the KAPD, taking with him his own organization in East Saxony (he had been elected President of the Dresden workers' council in November 1918). On his return, disappointed, from a trip to Soviet Russia he separated his regional group from the KAPD and, in 1921, realized his project of creating a unitary organization with the foundation of the AAU-E.[89] This incarnated Rühle's underlying belief that the organization of the revolutionary vanguard (which he considered indispensable) should not take the form of a political party. It was in the enterprise that the primary battlefield in the struggle against the power of capital was to be found, and it was on this basis that conscious revolutionaries would seek to unite. The BO (workers' organizations) federated and gradually formed the Unitary Workers' League (AAU-E). This League took on the characteristics of revolutionary struggle—economic and political—and concerned itself with both. It was governed by the federalist principle: no centralism, no leadership 'from outside', no interference by intellectuals not belonging to the plant. Delegates could be revoked at any time, while the leaders were no more than spokesmen for the rank and file, its executive organs. The task of unitary organization consisted of developing class consciousness and a feeling of solidarity among workers. Neither a party nor a union, the AAU-E was the revolutionary organization of the proletariat. It dissolved itself with the appearance of the councils which, in some ways, it had prefigured.[90]

The intermediate conception, halfway between the 'organizationalists' and the 'spontaneists', was developed by Pannekoek, arising logically from his views on the nature of the revolutionary struggle, which he tied directly to class consciousness. Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960) was an astronomer of world-renown and an historian of science; throughout his life he pursued a dual career as militant and scientist. He was active in the socialist movement for over half a century. He joined the Dutch SDAP in 1912 and, in the following year, began developing his theory of mass spontaneity. He was invited to Berlin in 1905 in order to teach at the party school, and henceforth he became active in both organizations. He became involved in the Bremen left-wing radical circles from 1906 onwards, contributing a large number of articles to the party journals. He was expelled from Germany in 1914 on account of his Dutch nationality, but he carried on his activities in Switzerland and Holland within the Zimmerwaldian left while keeping up his contacts with the German international socialists. He withdrew from active militant work after 1921 to devote himself to astronomy, which he taught at the University of Amsterdam from 1925 onwards. He nevertheless contributed to the theoretical work of the Dutch council communists, the GIC (International Communists Group), and published numerous articles in various council-communist reviews in the 1930s and 40s.

Pannekoek insisted with greater force than his companions upon the spiritual aspect of the class struggle. Certainly, he remained a convinced Marxist and materialist. But in his view material factors (relations of production) had no immediate influence upon the revolutionary process. The timelag between the emergence of new material structures or new modes of production and the moment the worker's consciousness becomes aware of them and adapts to them may be very long. Meanwhile, the worker's consciousness remains the prisoner of the beliefs, prejudices and false values of the surrounding culture. The power of the bourgeoisie is spiritual before all else: the bourgeoisie controls religion, education, propaganda activities and, more generally, the entire range of cultural production, to which the worker is more or less subjected. There is thus a gap between the material situation as it is today, and collective consciousness Hence the need to raise the proletariat's consciousness of its emancipatory tasks, while it is growing in numbers and while its role in the productive process makes it the true master of this process.[91]

If it is to be carried through to its conclusion, the revolution must first exist in the consciousness of the proletariat. The latter will find its own road to freedom through its struggles. But at the same time it is vital to develop and broaden its consciousness. And this is where the communists, those who have reflected and who have mastered the science of historical evolution, find their role. These enlightened elements are to meet in small groups which Pannekoek saw as being external to the scene of the practical struggle, namely the enterprise. Theirs is a function of clarification, explanation and discussion. It is their duty constantly to render the task to be accomplished ever more clearcut and evident; their task is tirelessly to propagate, in their writings and in their speeches. ideas and knowledge, formulating objectives, enlightening the masses. Just as the workers' councils constitute the units of practical action in the class struggle, these discussion groups represent its spiritual force.[92]

The precise outlines of these groups, which Pannekoek sometimes called parties, remain vague. They are without status, nor do they have membership cards or regular subscriptions. Most important, it is not their job to direct conflicts. It does not really matter to him what they are called so long as they are different from what we normally know as parties. These groups bring together all those who share the same underlying conceptions in order to discuss and to discover the tasks to be accomplished. Their activities are purely intellectual, and their importance stems from the fact that victory will ultimately depend upon the spiritual force of the proletariat as well.[93]

Alongside Pannekoek's rather moderate positions (his ideas concerning the party consisted of nuances), some council communists' views were rather more blunt, rejecting all forms of 'external' organization, no matter what its profile might be.

During the period 1917-23 one encounters conceptions which more closely resemble certain anarchist tendencies than the prevailing Marxism. As early as 1917, Julian Borchardt, for example, stated that all parties were alike and proclaimed the right to autonomy in the face of all authority, even that derived from the revolutionary party. Borchardt even rejected the form of the party itself, retaining only its 'executive organs' (Ausführende Organe).[94] A little later a fraction developed inside the 'unitarist' branch of the council communists (AAU-E) demanding the dissolution of all general organizational structures (i.e. ones bringing together rank-and-file groups).[95] But these two tendencies stood at the outer edges of council theory. On the other hand, a certain number of councillists put forward ideas in the 1930s derived by strict interpretation from the very heart of this theory. For these people, it was impossible to distinguish between the class struggle and the acts of the workers; the workers' movement coincided with the movement of the workers. It is governed by its own laws tending toward the appropriation of the means of production. Not only does it create its own organs of material struggle (factory or action committees) but also its own organs of intellectual knowledge: working groups. These groups are no longer gatherings of individuals external to the class but constitute an instrument forged by the class itself and within its own ranks. This will lead to the autonomous organization of the masses into councils, and the autonomous organizaton of revolutionary workers into working groups.[96] In other words, all intervention from outside is eliminated; all efforts in the direction of the final objective must come from within the class and any exception to this can only be inspired by the 'ex-workers' movement.

We have seen how council theory broke away from left-wing radicalism, establishing its own individuality against the conceptions Moscow was propagating through the Third International. With the passing years, the question of the Russian Revolution, its nature and characteristics, was to take an increasingly important place in the discussions of these 'working groups'. The councillists developed not one but two successive conceptions of the Russian Revolution, the content of these conceptions being inseparable from their theory as a whole.

To begin with, from 1919 on, radical theoreticians accepted that Russia had undergone a true revolution, abolishing the old regime and carrying the proletariat to power. But the specific conditions predominating in this backward country meant that the revolution could not be expected to assume the same forms as those it would surely take on in the industrialized countries of western Europe and North America. For these countries possessed large, educated proleletariats, with long histories behind them; they could not rely upon other social categories for the completion of their historical task. In Germany, for example, the mass of peasants was composed of tenant farmers and smallholders whose sole ambition was to enlarge and protect their property: they were the natural allies of the industrial bourgeoisie. The proletariat could only count on its own forces, material and spiritual. The day it arose, it would take upon itself the destruction of the old structures and, above all, it would exercise its own dictatorship—class dictatorship. In Russia, on the other hand, six million workers had been backed by a vast mass of peasants also aspiring to the expropriation of the capitalists. Once it had achieved power, however, this numerically weak working class (in a country of 180 million inhabitants), devoid of any tradition of freedom or class consciousness, was obliged to yield power to a party made up of conscious and devoted communists whose policy could not ignore the social base of its regime: the peasantry. Which explains why the dictatorship which was in fact exercised was not one of a class but that of a party, a bureaucracy, or more likely that of a few leaders only.[97]

In spite of this analysis, or perhaps because of it, the council communists identified themselves with the Russian Revolution and did not question the rightness of Bolshevik theory and practice. Bolshevik tactics were considered perfectly appropriate to the situation of an economically backward country; all they asked of the CPSU was that it desist from calling for the mechanical application of similar tactics to Western Europe, where the situation was utterly different.[98]

Opinions began to evolve from about 1921-2, when the Russian Revolution started to emerge as a bourgeois revolution. This change coincided with Lenin's introduction of the NEP and his encouragement of private property, especially in the countyside. Rühle was one of the first to demythologize the 'communist' character of the Russian Revolution. On his return from Russia he stated that the councils merely masked the dictatorship of the party, and that he found no trace of genuine communism; conversely, he went on, there was a flourishing new soviet bourgeoisie![99] Shortly afterwards all the councillists came round to the view that what had occurred in Russia had been a democratic-bourgeois or peasant-bourgeois revolution: so far were internal policy (the restoration of private property) and external policy (commercial and diplomatic relations with the capitalist powers) both supposed to bear witness to a process in which power was gradually passing into the hands of a minority and which was leading straight towards 'State capitalism'. The tasks facing the Russian revolutionaries were those of a defaulting bourgeoisie: the Revolution had been made by a handful of representatives of the petit bourgeoisie—the Bolsheviks—who had then gone on to set themselves up as an obstacle to the world proletarian revolution As usual, it was Rühle who stated this idea most incisively: for him, the more or less proletarian character of the Russian Revolution did nothing to alter its bourgeois essence in a country where the first task was to progress from feudalism to the industrial capitalism of the modern era. Right from the outset, he claimed, the regime had shown itself to be bourgeois: one had only to look to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, the acceptance of the principle of the right to self-determination of peoples, the persistence of private property among the peasantry or the policy of nationalization, which had nothing whatever to do with socialization.[100]

The essence of this analysis was to remain the same, even after the forced collectivization of 1928-30, although refinements were added later. Pannekoek later explained that the occupation of power by the party was due to a 'shortage of cadres' and that the State had substituted itself for the class. For him, State capitalism was equally a form of State socialism since the State, in Russia, was the sole master. With the bureaucracy carying out tasks which, in Western Europe, would have been those of the bourgeoisie, it was clearly the job of the bureaucrats to impose industrialization and the collectivization of land. This is why, despite its bourgeois character, or rather because of it, the Russian Revolution represented an enormous step forward, the masses having advanced from a stage of unevolving barbarianism to a situation in which they might aspire to dignity. But the price of this progress was a heavy one: an oppressive dictatorship, and an even more crushing slavery than that weighing upon the working class in Western capitalist societies.[101]

The Second World War led to no notable changes in the council theory; a certain number of theses were accentuated, while others were played down. The main target of struggles was now the State-unions coalition, as a result of which new forms of conflict were to be envisaged, such as wildcat strikes and factory occupations. These new methods (not entirely new, since the councillists had already observed their appearance before the war) seemed to them characteristic of the independence of thought and the autonomy of which the proletariat was now capable. The central problem in the post-war revolutionary process emerges as the extension of strikes. Since each wildcat strike brought the legality of the system itself and property rights into question, the repressive function of the union now acted as a spark liable to set the whole of society alight. The councillists therefore placed all their hopes in the powers of workers' solidarity and in the contagiousness of action which, by degrees, would lead the workers to seize the instruments of production. For nationalization alone will not do away with exploitation: a new bureaucracy will inevitably arise, as in the USSR, to take the place of the old exploiting class. The radical solution is the one which leads the workers to control the means of production for themselves.[102]

A few tiny groups propagating council theory or else theories close to it survived in the following years in Holland, Australia, Britain and France. Since the end of the 1960s, however, the ideas and traditions of council communism have suddenly enjoyed a fresh vogue. It has become one of the stars in the theoretical firmament of the New Left.[103] This is why it is necessary to situate, or at least to try to do so, the theses of the council movement in relation to the aspirations of the new radicality.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that the council theorists remain within the path traced by Marxism: their aim is to supply the one true, undeformed interpretation of Marxian thought. Furthermore, their Marxism is very narrowly determinist, and in spite of the importance Pannekoek accords to the spiritual factor and to consciousness, council communism's interpretation of historical materialism remains rather restrictive. The relations of production are seen as modifying, with or without timelag, social life and its evolution. As Gorter stated, men may make their own history, but only within rather narrow limits. Historical evolution is contained within the transformation of the modes of production.

This determinism, rather distant from the spirit of the new radicality, all too often gives rise to a certain dogmatism. Councillists believe firmly in the crisis of capitalism inevitably resulting in the emergence of revolutionay consciousness. Even if they are a good deal less dogmatic than a Kautsky or a Lenin, the council communists are nevertheless marked by a strict economism.[104]

The other element equally foreign to contemporary revolutionary thought concerns the central place assigned to the enterprise in the process of liberation. Pannekoek tells us that production is the very essence of society and that enterprises are its constitutive cells.[105] This statement flows from his very imperative historical materialism and his excessive valorization of economic factors. This valorization accounts for the councillists' conception of work: for them, work was considered desirable, indispensable, the source of all spiritual and social life. In other words, their conception of work differed barely from the quasi-religious image presented by Marx and Engels. The worker-controlled society advocated by the councillists turns out to be an immense factory; neither the unpleasantness nor the tedium of work will have disappeared. Far from liberating man from productive work, this vision binds him to it permanently and irremediably.

Otto Rühle even went as far as to hold that the worker is only really a proletarian when inside his factory. Outside, he is a petit bourgeois, philistine in his life-style, dominated by the ideology of the dominant class. Only in his place of work does he become a revolutionary.[106] One ends up wondering just how the worker manages to sustain this split personality; can a single individual really have twin mentalities, or two faces, like Janus? This question leads us to a more fundamental critique expressing the hard core of radical theory, namely the very partial character of council communism. For the concepts of council communism only really grasp one facet of human alienation, ignoring the other aspects, including the everyday life of the individual which lies at the heart of the radical critique. It is not certain that the proletarian is better armed in the professional struggle than he is in the fight against cultural, family and sexual repression.

Even where the role (ambiguous, to say the least) of 'conscious minorities'—working groups or new-style parties—is concerned, council communism borrows rather too many elements from classical Marxism for it not to be a little suspect in the eyes of the new radicals. The councillists were of bourgeois origin for the most part, intellectuals who were well-established in careers in the surrounding society. There is something paradoxical about their enthusiasm for the messianic role of the workers—the others, to employ the existentialist's vocabulary—when one considers that the autonomy or the self-movement of the proletariat lies at the centre of their preoccupations.

For all this, the councillists did contribute an historical contradiction of Leninist ideology. In those dark years when the Third International stood out as the incarnation of revolutionary hopes, the councillists demystified this claim while starting from the same theoretical premises as the official communists.

Finally, by referring first and foremost to the historical experience of the councils they gave content and illustration to one of the fundamental demands of radicality, namely that the struggle for liberation from all constraints should be autonomous. And if they were not alone in placing all their hopes and faith in the experience of the councils, they nonetheless situated it within the historical evolution of radicality.



[1] See Richard Gombin The Radical Tradition (London 1978) chapter 1.

[2] Generally, we find three tendencies: the moderate, chauvinist branch; the reformist, pacifist branch, less inclined to seek integration into bourgeois democracy; the revolutionary left wing, the majority of which ended by siding with the Third International.

[3] Here I am employing Gustav Landauer's distinction (in Die Revolution, Frankfurt, 1907) between topia, which is experienced and expressed reality, and utopia, incorporating both topia—that which exists—and that which is not expressed, but to which we aspire. The moment utopia becomes a fact it becomes topia.

[4] F. L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe (1918-1919) (London, 1972), p. 125ff.

[5] For a chronological and institutional description see A. Schwarz, Die Weimarer Republik (Corstanz, 1958), p. 28-9.

[6] P. Broué, Révolution en Allemagne (Paris, 1971), ch. 6.

[7] P. von Oertzen, Betriebsräte in Novemberrevolution (Dusseldorf, 1963), p. 71ff.

[8] Broué, op. cit., and E. Kolb, Die Arbeiterräte in der deutschen Innenpolitik (Dusseldorf, 1962), p. 60.

[9] Kolb, op. cit., pp. 88-90.

[10] ibid., pp. 91, 92.

[11] This is the view of most historians of the period, starting with O. K. Flechtheim, even though the latter is favourable to the revolutionary movement. Cf. his Die K.P.D. in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt, 1969), ch. 2.

[12] See R. Grunberger, Red Rising in Bavaria (London, 1973), for a chronology and account of these events. Documents of the period are to be found in G. Schmolze (ed.), Revolution und Räterepublik in Munchen 1918-1919 in Augenzeugenberichten (Dusseldorf, 1969).

[13] The first council dates back to December 1917; cf. R. L. Tokés, Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic (New York, 1967), p. 38. The vast literature on this subject is dealt with in F. Völgyes, The Hungarian Soviet Republic (Stanford, 1970).

[14] Tokés, op. cit., p. 120.

[15] ibid., p. 161.

[16] Of the 33 People's Commissars, 17 were socialists, 14 communists and two belonged to no party (ibid., p. 137).

[17] It is noteworthy that the Guilds, which were active after 1910, did not call for the ownership of industry, nor were they prepared to leave the management of industry in the hands of the workers alone. Finally, their theoreticians were careful to point out that there was no question of breaking with the unions and that they sought merely to transform the doctrines of trade-unionism, notably insofar as joint control was concerned. See G. D. H. Cole, Guild Socialism (London, 1920) p. 24.

[18] G. D. H. Cole and R. Postgate, The Common People (London, 1968), p. 518.

[19] ibid., p. 546-57.

[20] Cf. B. Pribicevic, The Shop Stewards' Movement and Workers' Control, 1910-1922 (Oxford, 1959), p. 99ff.

[21] ibid., p. 144.

[22] A. Tasca, Naissance du fascisme (Paris, 1967), p. 45.

[23] ibid., p. 54.

[24] ibid., p. 103-4.

[25] H. Prouteau, Les occupations d'usines en France et en Italie (1920-1936) (Paris, 1967), p. 40.

[26] J. M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford, 1967), p. 74.

[27] 'Sindicati e consigli', Ordine Nuovo (11 October 1919), in A. Gramsci, L'Ordine Nuovo 1919-1920 (n.p., 1955), pp. 34-9 (henceforth referred to as Opere). [johngray note: English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 (London, 1977), pp. 98-102]

[28] 'Il partito e la revoluzione', Ordine Nuovo (27 December 1919), in Opere, pp. 67-71. [johngray note: English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 (London, 1977), pp. 142-146]

[29] 'Sindicalismo e consigli' Ordine Nuovo (8 November 1919), and second article, 'Sindicati e consigli' (2 June 1920), in Opere, pp.44-8,131-5. [johngray note: English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 (London, 1977), pp. 109-113, 265-268]

[30] 'Democrazia operaia', Ordine Nuovo (21 July 1919), written in collaboration with Palmiro Togliatti, in Opere, pp. 10-13. [johngray note: English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 (London, 1977), pp. 65-68] See also J. M. Piotte, La pensée politique de Gramsci (Paris, 1970), p. 260.

[31] Cammett, op. cit., p. 88.

[32] Cf. 'Il problema del pottere', Ordine Nuovo (29 November 1919), and 'Partito di governo e classe di governo' (6 March 1920) in Opere, pp. 56-60, 91-6. [johngray note: English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 (London, 1977), pp. 130-134, 167-172]

[33] 'Sindicati e consigli', op. cit. (20 June 1920).

[34] Along similar lines, see Piotte, op. cit., p. 263.

[35] Even though he openly held libertarian doctrines to be 'pernicious' (Cammett, op. cit., p. 125). Concerning his relations with the anarchists, cf. P. C. Masini, Antonio Gramsci e l'Ordine Nuovo. Visti da un libertario (n.p., 1956).

[36] Cited by Piotte, op. cit., p. 271.

[37] ibid., p. 373.

[38] Sozialistengesetze (1878-90), which outlawed socialist organizations during this period. On the development of German social democracy see C. E. Schorske's classic work, German Social Democracy (1905-1917) (Cambridge, Mass 1955).

[39] R. Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Union (Detroit, n. d. [1919]).

[40] From the name of the journal opposing the leadership of the Dutch party, published from 1907 onwards: Die Tribune.

[41] At the time she wrote, the problem of bureaucratization was being discussed widely. lt was in 1906 (while still a member of the SPD) that Robert Michels drew attention to this phenomenon, before devoting a more detailed sociological study to it in 1911. [johngray note: English translation as Robert Michels Political Parties (London, 1962)]

[42] J. P. Nettl's book bears abundant witness to this: Rosa Luxemburg (London, 1966).

[43] H. M. Bock, 'Zur Geschichte und Theorie der holländischen marxistischen Schule', in A. Pannekoek and H. Gorter, Organisation und Taktik der proletarischen Revolution (Frankfurt, 1969), p. 12, speaks of 500 members; F. Kool (ed.), in his introduction to Die Linke gegen die Parteiherrschaft (Olten, 1970), p. 89, puts the figure at 700.

[44] A. Pannekoek, Die taktischen Differenzen in der Arbeiterbewegung (Hamburg, 1909). [johngray note: English translation of excerpts in Serge Bricianer Pannekoek and the Workers Councils (St Louis, 1978), ch. 2]

[45] A. Pannekoek, 'Massenaktion und Revolution', Die Neue Zeit, vol. 1 (1912), p. 543, and 'Die Eroberung der Herrschaft', Leipziger Volkszeitung, no. 210 (1912). [johngray note: English translation of excerpts in Serge Bricianer Pannekoek and the Workers Councils (St Louis, 1978) ch. 3]

[46] A. Pannekoek, 'Marxistische Theorie und revolutionäre Taktik', Die Neue Zeit, vol. 1 (1912), pp. 272-81, 365-73. [johngray note: English translation in D.A.Smart (ed.) Pannekoek and Gorter's Marxism (London, 1978)] On the history of 'left-wing radicalism', cf. H. M. Bock, Syndikalismus und Linkskommunismus von 1918-1923 (Meisenheim am Glan, 1969).

[47] The more so in that extreme-left journals circulated with amazing ease, even at the front. Cf. J. Miller, 'Zur Geschichte der linken Sozial-demokraten in Bremen (1906-1918)', in Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft (Sonderheft, 1958), pp. 202-17.

[48] In reality, a good many Spartakists did not share the views of their leaders but, in the circumstances, only the latter managed to make their views heard. Liebknecht's views, moreover, were more innovative than those of Luxemburg, as is shown by his prison writings in the years 1917-18: Karl Liebknecht, Politische Aufzeichnungen aus seinem Nachlass (Berlin, 1921). See also Bock, op. cit., pp. 65, 66.

[49] Arbeiterpolitik (Bremen), no. 1 (24 January 1916), and no. 7 (17 February 1917), see the editorials.

[50] To begin with, the ISD label, strictly speaking, referred only to the Hamburg and Bremen groups. But within a short space of time all the extremist groups came to be known by this name.

[51] Arbeiterpolitik (Bremen), no. 15 (14 April 1917), and no. 10 (26 August 1916).

[52] 'Zur Einführung', Vorbote (1 January 1916), unsigned.

[53] A.Pannekoek,'Bolschewismus und Demokratie', Arbeiterpolitik (Bremen), no. 5 (14 December 1918). [johngray note: English translation of excerpts in Serge Bricianer Pannekoek and the Workers Councils (St Louis, 1978), pp. 150-152]

[54] Radek played a vital role in this unexpected rapprochement. Having been active in the Hamburg organization, he joined Lenin in 1917 and argued in favour of reunification. It should be added that the Bolshevik leaders were highly popular among the Internationals, the latter reprinting articles by Lenin, Zinoviev and, of course, Radek in their press, even though the latter had not exactly left fond memories behind him among his former comrades in either the German or Polish parties.

[55] More exactly, the divergencies were masked by a facade of ideological unity. Thus, even at the constitutive conference of the USPD (in April 1917), the Spartakist representative Fritz Ruck, had expressed views very close to those of the Internationals. H. M. Bock, Syndikalismus und Linkskommunismus, op. cit., p. 62.

[56] Programm der kommunistischen Arbeiter-Partei Deutschlands, place of publication not indicated, undated [1920].

[57] It was the left-wing communists of Hamburg and Bremen who drew up the statutes of the AAUD in August 1919. Cf. Bock, op. cit., pp. 130 2. See also F. Wolffheim Betriebsorganisationen oder Gewerkschaften (Hamburg, 1919; the text dates from August). [johngray note: English translation of AAUD statutes published in Workers Dreadnought November 1921]

[58] Massenaktion, pamphlet put out by the KAU (Berlin, 1933). For a long time already, the AAUD-E had been torn between those wanting to maintain a solid organization, with decisions taken at the top and binding on the rank-and-file (the Rätekommunisten), and those calling for the abolition of all constricting organizational structures. As for propaganda, chiefly directed against the political parties, it called for the extension of the councils' watchword. Cf. Die Allgemeine Arbeiter-Union (Einheitsorganisation). Was sie ist und was sie will! (Frankfurt am Main, 1927).

[59] H. M. Bock, op. cit., p. 209. In 1923, council communist groups and sects as a whole numbered fewer than 20,000 persons (F. Kool, op. cit., p. 145).

[60] Rosa Luxemburg had expressed reservations concerning three points: the principle of nationalities, the non-collectivization of land, the dictatorship of the party. These reservations came on top of her reluctance to break with social democracy, at least up to December 1918. Cf. her The Russian Revolution (London, 1959; written in 1918).

[61] A.Pannekoek,'Bolschewismus und Demokratie', op. cit. See also his article, 'Der Anfang', Arbeiterpolitik, no. 48 (30 November 1918).

[62] V. Lenin, State and Revolution (Moscow, 1970).

[63] V. Lenin, State and Revolution (Moscow, 1970). (italics in the original text).

[64] O. C. Flechtheim, Le parti communiste allemand sous la République de Weimar (Paris, 1972), pp. 85ff. According to Broué, Paul Levi's effective authority over the party dates back to March 1919: op. cit., p. 295.

[65] Letter in Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung (Hamburg), no. 191 (1919).

[66] V. Lenin, 'Left-Wing' Communism, an Infantile Disorder (Peking).

[67] 'Bericht über Moskau', Die Aktion, no. 39/40 (1920).

[68] In Manifestes, thèses et résolutions des quatre premiers congrès mondiaux de 1'Internationale communiste (Paris, 1934; facsimile repr. Paris, 1970), pp. 47, 49. [Johngray Note: English Translations in Theses Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (London, 1980), The Second Congress of the Communist International (New York, 1977), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (Communist International in Lenin's Time) (New York, 1992)]

[69] Bock, op. cit., p. 257.

[70] Trotsky had no hesitation in criticizing in advance (at the Third Congress of the Communist International) this Fourth Intemational 'in no danger of ever becoming very numerous'. He evidently thought otherwise when he set up his own Fourth International a few years later.

[71] H. Gorter, Offener Brief an den Genossen Lenin, eine Antwort auf Lenins Broschure: Der Radikakalismus, eine Kinderkrankheit des Kommunismus (Berlin, n.d. [1921]). [Johngray note: English translations in Workers Dreadnought Vol. VII no. 51 to Vol. VIII no. 13, March-June 1921. Corrected translation in Wildcat pamphlet Open Letter To Comrade Lenin (London, 1989)]

[72] F. Wolffheim, Betriebsorganisationen oder Gewerkschaften (Hamburg, 1919), and A. Pannekoek, Weltrevolution und kommunistische Taktik (Vienna, 1920). [Johngray Note: English translation in D.A.Smart (ed.) Pannekoek and Gorter's Marxism (London, 1978), pp. 93-141.]

[73] 'Der Parlamentarismus in der proletarischen Revolution', Proletarier (Berlin), no. 2 (November 1920).

[74] 'Zur Frage der Einheitschule', Arbeiterpolitik (Bremen), no. 7 (17 February 1917). Cf. also Bock, 'Zur Geschichte und Theorie der holländschen marxistischen Schule', op. cit., p. 17.

[75] They were undoubtedly influenced by the founder of Dutch social democracy, who subsequently became a libertarian socialist, Ferdinand Domela Niewenhuis. From the 1890s on, Niewenhuis opposed parliamentarianism in favour of class struggle, and issued warnings to the Marxist parties, whom he suspected of veering towards State socialism and dictatorship. See his Socialisme en danger, 3rd edn (Paris, 1897), pp. 48, 72, 216.

[76] O. Rühle, Von der bürgalichen zur proletarischen Revolution (Berlin, 1970), p. 32 (the text dates from 1924).

[77] ibid., pp. 38-43, and A. Pannekoek, Workers' Councils (Melbourne, 1950: English version of De arbeidersraaden, published in Amsterdam, 1946, under the pseudonym of P. Aartsz), p. 65. See also his 'Five Theses on the Class Struggle', Southern Advocate for Workers' Councils (Melbourne, May 1947).

[78] J. H. [A. Pannekoek], 'Trade Unionism', International Council Correspondence (Chicago), no. 2 January 1936).

[79] H. Gorter, 'Partei, Klasse und Masse', Proletarier, no 4 (February-March 1921), and A. Pannekoek, 'Der neue Blanquismus', Der Kommunist (Bremen), no. 27 (1920).

[80] [A. Pannekoek], 'Partei und Arbeiterklasse', Rätekorrespondenz (published by the GIC, the Dutch International Communist Group), no. 15 (March 1936), and J. Harper [A. Pannekoek], 'General Remarks on the Question of Organization', Living Marxism (Chicago), no. 5 (November 1938).

[81] 'Arbeiterräte und kommunistische Wirtschaftsgestaltung', Rätekorrespondenz, no 5 (October 1934).

[82] A. Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, op. cit., section 1: 'The Task'.

[83] J. H. [A. Pannekoek], 'The Workers' Councils', International Council Correspondence, no. 5 (1936).

[84] K. Horner [A. Pannekoek], Sozialdemokratie und Kommunismus (Hamburg, 1919). [Johngray Note: English translation of excerpts in Serge Bricianer Pannekoek and the Workers' Councils (St Louis, 1978) ch. 6]

[85] K. Schroder, Vom Werden der neuen Gesellschaft (Berlin, n.d. [1920]); O. Ruhle, Von der bürgerlichen zur proletarischen Revolution; J. Harper [A. Pannekoek], 'General Remarks on the Question of Organization'. See also the first programme of the KAPD (1920).

[86] In general, it was the fervent KAPists who saw, in the existing factory organizations, the core of the councils. For a 'Council State', cf. the second programme of the KAPD (repr. in Bock, op. cit) and Pannekoek, who compares them to parliament (Workers' Councils , p. 47).

[87] A detailed bio-bibliography of Gorter will be found in S. Bricianer, op. cit., and in Kool (ed.), Die Linke gegen die Parteiherrschaft, op. cit.

[88] H. Gorter, 'Partei, Klasse und Masse', op. cit., and Die Klassenkampf-Organisation des Proletariats (Berlin, 1921). See also his Offener Briefan den Genossen Lenin....

[89] Which he was to leave in order to return to the SPD in 1926. Concerning his life and work, cf. Kool's introduction to Kool, op. cit., and Otto Rühle Schriften (Hamburg, 1971).

[90] O. Ruhle, Die Revolution ist keine Parteisache! (Berlin, 1920), [Johngray Note: English Translation in London Workers Group Bulletin Issue 14, October 1983.] and Von der bürgerlichen zur proletarischen Revolution.

[91] A. Pannekoek: 'Historical Materialism', article published in Dutch in Nieuwe Tijd, 1919 (French translation in Cahiers du communisme de conseils, no. 1, 1968), and 'Marxismus und Idealismus', Proletarier, no. 4 (February-March 1921). A good biography of Pannekoek is to be found in Die linke gegen die Parteiherrschaft. Bock gives a list of his books, articles and pamphlets in Organisation und Taktik der proletarischen Revolution, op. cit. [Johngray Note: See also John Gerber Anton Pannekoek and the Socialism of Workers' Self-Emancipation 1873-1960 (Amsterdam, 1989). An article by the same author is online at the Collective Action Notes website Anton Pannekoek and the Quest For an Emancipatory Socialism - John Gerber]

[92] 'Prinzip und Taktik', Proletarier, no. 8 (August 1927); [Johngray Note: English translation of excerpts in Serge Bricianer Pannekoek and the Workers' Councils (St Louis, 1978) pp. 231-244] 'Partei und Arbeiterklasse', Rätekorrespondenz, no. 15 (March 1936).

[93]Workers' Councils, op. cit., p. 101, and 'The Party and the Working Class', International Council Correspondence, nos. 9 and 10 (September 1936). Cf. also Pannekoek's letter to Pierre Chaulieu, in which he further detailed his conception of the party-group, reprinted in Cahiers du communisme de conseils, no. 8 (May 1971).

[94] See his Revolutionshoffnungen (Berlin, 1917), and Bock, op. cit., pp. 73ff. The Bremen ISD broke with him, accusing him of having 'liquidated' the party-form.

[95] ibid., p. 220.

[96] H. Canne Meijer, 'Das Werden einer neuen Arbeiterbewegung', Rätekorrespondenz, nos 8-9 (April 1935), partial English translation in International Council Correspondence no. 10 (August 1935). See also Die Linke gegen die Parteiherrschaft, op. cit., p. 613, n. 261.

[97] 'Östlicher und westlicher Kommunismus', Proletarier, no. (October 1920); Gorter, Offener Brief an den Genossen Lenin..., passim; and Gorter, 'Partei, Klasse und Masse' (1921), op. cit.

[98] 'Lehren der Marz-Aktion', Proletarier, no. 5 (April-May 1921); [A. Pannekoek], 'Sowjetrussland und der westeuropäische Kommunismus', op. cit. (June 1921). Cf. also Pannekoek's letter to Erich Muhsam (at the end of 1920), in which he declared his wholehearted solidarity with the Bolsheviks (cited by Bricianer, op. cit., pp. 215-17). [Johngray Note: English translation in Serge Bricianer Pannekoek and the Workers' Councils (St Louis, 1978), pp. 222-225]

[99] 'Bericht über Moskau', Die Aktion, nos 39-40 (September 1920).

[100] 'Die russische Staatspolitik und ihre Konsequenzen fur die Kommunistische Internationale', Proletarier no. 6 (June 1922); 'Thesen über Moskau', Rätekorrespondenz, no. 3 (August 1934): Von bürgerlichen zur proletarischen Revolution, ch. 2, 'Das russische Problem'.

[101] Workers' Councils, section ii, ch. 5, 'The Russian Revolution'.

[102] Cf. The New World, pamphlet published by the 'Groups of Council Communists Holland' (Amsterdam 1947), and A. Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, final section, 'The Peace', as well as his article 'The Failure of the Working Class', Politics, vol. 3 no. 8 (September 1946), cited by Bricianer, op. cit., pp. 283ff.

[103] Symptomatic is the chapter on the workers' councils (written by an ex-KAPist, Paul Mattick) published in an anthology claiming to be representative of the New Left: P. Long (ed.), The New Left (Boston, 1969). On the councillist tradition in France since the Second World War, cf. my Les origines du gauchisme (Paris, 1971), ch. 4 (English translation: The Origins of Modern Leftism, Penguin Books, 1975).

[104] The thesis of the 'fatal crisis of capitalism' was current in councillist circles in the 1930s. This theme was taken up again in the 1940s, and Pannekoek still speaks of a gradual worsening of capitalism's positions in his Workers' Councils, pp. 225-7. [Johngray note: the page reference is actually 229-30.] See also Mattick's essay on workers' councils (op. cit. in note. 103). [Johngray Note: Gombin is correct about the prevalance of crisis theory in councillist circles - however Pannekoek consistently rejected breakdown theories. See The Theory of the Collapse of Capitalism (1934)]

[105] 'The Workers' Councils', International Council Correspondence, op. cit.

[106] Ruhle, Von bürgerlichen zur proletarischen Revolution, op. cit., p. 51.