Council communists of the world, organize (the workers, or yourselves?)

Recently I have witnessed some interesting attempts of council communists to organize. The actual historical situation brings forwards new elements interested in council communism, and older elements understand the unique chance for an activity larger than mere propaganda and theoretical discussions. The renewed economic crisis forces capital to attack proletarians massively, as in Latin America and the Middle East last autumn, with resulting mass protests and revolt. After this movement disappeared by a lack of capacity to find a proletarian alternative, the Corona pandemic gave the world bourgeoisie an unprecedented occasion to hide the crisis of its mode of production behind a ‘natural’ disaster and to unite their nations behind the ‘lockdown’. But workers, mainly in Italy and in the USA, resisted effectively working under unsafe conditions. At the same time, the billions spent by governments to help big corporations survive the economical collapse contrasted failing health services and care for the elderly as a result of spending cuts over the past years. This made many workers think critically about the system. And then, against the background of mass unemployment, hitting hard on precarious workers, the demonstrations and revolts against racist police brutality in the USA and elsewhere flamed up. We will see that the council communist initiatives responded differently to several aspects of this rise of class struggle.

The Internationalist

This is a new publication, with two interesting historical articles and one on actuality. On the occasion of the wave of protests in the USA, the article pointed at the “millions of oppressed and exploited folks. All are being sacrificed to save the capitalist economy left battered by the COVID crisis, either by being pressed back to work risking infection by coronavirus, or the masses of workers fired to compensate falling rates of profit.” 

The article showed the following council communist perspective for the movement:

“We wish for the insurgency to reach places of production and link up with already struggling workers, springing up Struggle/Strike committees, strike assemblies, and factory councils; the objective being a new General Workers Union. For that the insurgency must become aware of itself as a political force of class-based change, for that, revolutionary communists everywhere must join the protest, defend communists’ positions and critique. We have no doubts that the insurgency has already created radicals, but as observed in France, it was not enough, they need critical support, to identify clearly the root systemic injustice leading to the insurgency.” (1)

‘The Internationalist’ ended its article with a clear statement on racism and the impossibility to end racism within capitalism:

“Racism is not a calamity fallen from the sky, or ‘human nature’. It takes roots in capitalists relations of productions and will only die with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the socialization of the means of productions. It is the ruthless mercantile competition which forms the framework of this system and models our consciousness and pitches us one against another. It is on this compost that racism prospers.” (The Internationalist, The Fire Next Time). (2) 

Active Strike Support Group

Another council communist initiative calls itself Active Strike Support Group. The program of this group – in itself an important achievement – is published below this article. When asked to participate, I responded very reluctantly to this initiative, because some initial discussion in March/April 2020 on Michael Shraibman’s “Call from Russia”, showed no progress. Instead of clarification of political positions, a voluntarist approach ‘to do something’ took over. In general, modern council communism suffers from a very weak theoretical base, mostly limited to a mix of anarcho-syndicalism and Otto Rühles AAU-E. This weakness also shows in the Program of the Active Strike Support Group.

Activities of the group (theses 1/5, 17)

The basic idea of the group is to provide support and solidarity to striking workers. The form of help it proposed is unprecedented in historical council communism. I have known similar efforts in the Netherlands and Belgium that in the 1970-ties have been initiated by Maoists ‘serving the people’ and by the branch of Trotskyism known as Pablism (favoring ‘workers self-management’). Autonomists animated several enterprise groups, Philips, Ford, ADM (shipyard), focused on undercover work in industrial companies, combined with journalistic research. In Great-Britain, the Solidarity Group (around Paul Cardan, a Trotskyist influenced by Pannekoek) had similar initiatives. Presently Angry Workers seems to be inspired by the work of Solidarity. The common historical roots of all these rather different initiatives are not to be found in the communist left or council communism but in the trade union policies of the Comintern that tried to give itself a semblance of radically with ‘communist enterprise cells’ and workerist verbiage. Some present NGO’s show similar activities directed at China, trying to set up ‘free’ (that is US-orientated) trade-unions, with disappointing results for the Chinese workers involved; f.e. the German trade-unions in the automobile industry – unsurprisingly – never made true the promised ‘solidarity’. In many countries we see Labour-net giving information about strikes and facilitating contacts between workers, from a syndicalist point of view.

The initiative seems to be based more on a willingness to help striking workers than on the question what are actually the needs of class struggle from a council communist point of view.

However, the initiative stands out as clear and positive when it wants to ceate an international and internationalist network. This is shown in one of the first responses it received, from a comrade in Iraq.

The Working Group for Council Communist Initiatives that set up the Support Group do not know these similar efforts by ‘Leninists’ in the past, but when they are told about, they simply declare their approach is different. They want to “serve as an information and logistics center for providing support”. What this means concretely remains rather vague. In another post is explained that we may think about spreading news about strikes, directing our fire at the company and the owners, fund-raising for the striking workers, support for individual workers and researching the logistical and financial links with other companies. 

Apparently, the group didn’t notice that this kind of activities from what are in fact outsiders can harm the strikers by making them believe that ‘denouncing’ their capitalists in the eyes of the ‘public’ will help them to win the strike, that fund-raising may divert from searching active extension of the strike to other workers, that solidarity most probably is found elsewhere than in the logistic chains or along the financial streams in and out the company. This is all well-meaning help, comparable to the not so well-meaning paternalistic services by companies to their employees, charity by churches, and ‘Red Help’ by Stalinist parties, all directed at gaining influence amongst those ‘helped’. 

There is however one proposal that fits both historic and current council communism: criticism against trade unions leading strikes. Unfortunately exactly this point has only been mentioned in the Program, and lacks argumentation.

Historic council communism (f.e. Anton Pannekoek in his chapter on trade-unionism in The Workers’ Councils) has underlined that the reason why trade unions no longer can serve even the most simple workers’ struggles on wages, working time, and working conditions, that never have transcended capitalism but are movements inside the functioning of the labor market. Trade unionism relied upon leadership from outside factories, that could have oversight of the companies in a branch of industry competing with each other, picking the one for a strike that was most probable to surrender to the strike, after which the other companies would follow. By the concentration of capital, the growing influence of financial capital, the existence of trusts, and finally the counter-organization of employers, this strategy started to fail. Under the pressure of the state, the trade-unions were integrated into a system of regulated negotiations and collective agreements. 

From this historical point of view we can, therefore, see that the activity of the Support Group, that believes to be “completely independent of any union or political organization” (thesis 5) is programmed for trade-unionism, especially by its focus on outsider activity, branch studies, and “focus on separate strikes collectively [meaning: democratically decided by the group] deemed important and neuralgic” (thesis 2). 

The internal functioning (theses 6/8, 13/16)

When we have a look at what the Program says about the internal functioning, at first sight, all seems very democratic and according to anarchist and council communist principles: no hierarchy, no leaders, all members participate equally in decision making, work according to their abilities and develop these (thesis 6). 

Thesis 7 obliges members to defend these principles, formulated for the minority group, for the workers as a whole. “Free workers’ thought on all matters”, so dear to Anton Pannekoek, is mentioned explicitly. Probably to stimulate thinking for themselves by the workers, “through a larger entity, or forum the group will also publish theoretical, analytical and information texts on the situation in different counties and on the history of proletarian movements.” (thesis 8). In fact, the group by this political activity gives itself the main function that it should have as a communist minority. Therefore, why not integrate this function in the space of the group itself? Why this separation of economics and politics, that we know from social-democracy (trade union and party), that later was copied by the German Left, in a revolutionary “Arbeiter Union” and a Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD), that both organized the minority of revolutionairy communists. The formation of Rühles AAU-E tried to integrate both economic and political functions, at the expense of the political tasks of the council communists, and became just another, a third organization. Now that we are not a minority of thousands of councils communists, as in Germany in 1920, but just a handful, we did better limit ourselves to the formation of a group, one group, one publication.

In fact bringing together conscious proletarians from several enterprises and unemployed communists in one meeting in stead of organizing separately, has always proven an important factor in finding ways to extend struggles. A precondition is of course that these meetings are private, ‘in real life’ and not on the Internet, that is permanently tapped by secret services. 

But may be, this separate space is designed to be able to ‘reject any attempt to indoctrination working people” (theses 7)? Presuming that indoctrination is understood as negative, as in general understanding, the question is how can be established what is indoctrination and what not. For most people indoctrination refers to political positions they don’t agree with and therefore don’t want to be confronted with. This is a potential killer of discussion and therefore of free-thinking. 

The site’s only content will be “articles, stories, interviews, images and video recordings of the selected striking workers” so that “they can express themselves and tell their story to an international audience.” (thesis 15) However, these may “not contradict the ideas of council communism, according to the goals stated in the Program” (thesis 16). Has the group considered that striking workers may have positions that are NOT council communist? The kind of censorship that is introduced for what is meant to be a public space for striking workers, seems to introduce a limitation of the freedom of discussion and thinking, that may be appropriate for a minority group with base political positions, but not for a ‘free space’.

Missing is how the group’s coordinating committee is elected, and how it can be removed by the members, an important matter for a group that wants no leaders or hierarchy, and even more, this is essential … for striking workers. This ‘principle of the Paris Commune’ and the Workers Councils should be mentioned as such.

Basic positions (theses 9/12)

In four of its theses the group introduces some basic positions: 

  • The organization of the workers as a class and the refusal to form fronts with other classes (thesis 9).
  • Defense of workers’ democracy, a concept that refers to the class as a whole, strange enough this is elaborated on the level of minority organizations (as the group itself is) that pretend to be at the basis and support of mass struggle (thesis 10). A more sophisticated formulation of the relationship between mass and minority organizations seems needed.
  • Contact with unionized workers is not refused; they are stimulated to act and think independently from unions (thesis 11).
  • Other forms of workers struggle than strikes, will be covered as well (thesis 12).

In practical functioning the group may discover the need to extend and fine tune these basic positions. An form of struggle obviously missing is that of unemployed workers, where we should not forget the American experiences of Paul Mattick during de Great Depression.

Conclusions

I gave these comments, critiques and proposals, because I believe that the group can learn from its activities and class struggle. However, I will not join the activity of the group. Today’s revolutionaries have to develop their knowledge, both by the understanding of the social continuity that links us to the past and by the understanding of the particularities that separate us from history. As one of the few remaining elements that have known the last members of the Dutch and German Communist Left, I concentrate on making known their texts and showing their importance in analyzing actuality. In fact, I could not have made these comments without the GIC “Theses on revolutionary enterprise nuclei, party, and dictatorship”, an important historical text on mass and minority organization, recently translated into English for the first time. The contributions and the GIC, as that of the KAPD, are hardly known, even amongst council communists.

Study of this historical text of the GIC, its introduction and the objections that Pannekoek made in 1920 to the formation of the AAUD, might learn The Internationalist that in the current historical situation in the USA there is no reason to form revolutionary workers’ unions on the model of the AAUD. The latter has been the result of a real mass movement in 1920 that raised the slogan ‘Leave the trade unions’. This happened after the social-democratic ‘Freie Gewerkschaften’ that participated in the imperialist war and in the repression of the struggle of revolutionary workers, finally were openly integrated into the state because the SPD-government made union membership compulsory for all workers. This had as effect that those who were kicked out the union, lost not only their jobs, but also their right to unemployment benefits, that were organized by the same state unions. Revolutionary workers attacked union offices, confiscated their money to distribute amongst the unemployed and strikers. Actually there is no workers mass movement in the USA, there is no massive break with the state unions or with the democratic illusion. The few elements that gained a class consciousness from the actual movement can discuss with today’s tiny communist minorities and unite on the basis of some basic positions. They should form groups to discuss and to be active within the class as a whole in the direction of self-organization in the struggle for proletarian class interests. As Pannekoek argued, there is a danger that forming a revolutionary workers’ union at a certain moment (as now the IWW), will later leave the revolutionaries isolated in a separate organization when majorities of workers unite against the state unions on another basis. (Letter by Pannekoek)

If there is an ‘invariable program’ (Bordiga), the question of mass and minority organization is not written in it in all concrete details. Therefore, I believe the best I can advice the new groups mentioned, to study and discuss these positions the GIC on organization. New elements should decide for themselves what the questions raised in the 1930-ties, and what the answers given by the GIC, mean for us today.

F.C. 23-6-2020

Notes

(1) By the way, I do not agree with proposals to found a new General Workers Union at the example of the ‘Allgemeine Arbeiter Union’ of the 1920-ties in Germany. In the conclusion to this text I will come back to this.

(2) The question of the influence of the ‘official’ Black Lives Matter and left identity politics in the mass movement against police violence in the USA, has led to a skirmish between council communists that are close to The Internationalist and Michael Shraibman, one of the animators of the Active Strike Support Group. It should be noted that the latter group, has taken no clear position of the relationship between racism and capitalism. A legitimate reason might be they were too busy with forming their international solidarity network.

Appendix 

ACTIVE STRIKE SUPPORT GROUP, PROGRAM

1.The aim of the group is to select industrial actions or strikes and provide support and solidarity to the involved workers and their families. The group’s purpose is ultimately to serve as an information and logistics center for providing support to striking workers.

2. The group strives to create a large network of members around the world who will focus on separate strikes collectively deemed important and neuralgic.

3. The group democratically selects individual strikes to focus on.

4. The group is both international and internationalist. It is united by one common goal: to contribute to the union of working people and the formation of workers’ councils. In terms of our heterogeneity, we are similar to the First International.

5. The activity of the team will be completely independent of any union or political organization.

6. The group has no hierarchy or leaders. All members will participate equally in decision making. It is also desirable that all members participate in the collective activities according to their abilities, and that each member develops their capacities and knowledge in order to contribute to strike-support activities.

7. All members agree to defend workers’ self-organization, reject hierarchical forms of organization, defend free workers’ thought on all matters, and reject any attempt to indoctrinate working people.

8. Through a larger entity, or forum, the group will also publish theoretical, analytical, and information texts on the situation in different countries and on the history of proletarian movements.

9. The group defends the centrality of the capital-labor conflict and workers’ self-organization as a class. It does not accept inter-class strategies that indiscriminately mix workers and other “citizens,” “workers’ struggles,” “popular,” or “civil” struggles.

10. We reject all authoritarian attempts to subordinate workers’ democratic initiatives. We see the basis for the workers’ struggle in the initiative of informal groups that are independent of trade unions, and in the support of struggles by associations committed to the development of autonomous forms of workers’ power, from workers’ assemblies to workers’ councils.

11. Because millions of workers in different countries are organised in unions, and many strikes are still based directly or indirectly on unions, we do not refuse to engage with workers who are members of trade unions. We do this to encourage them to take initiatives and think independently of unions.

12. In addition to strikes, the group will sometimes also focus on other forms of working class struggle (e.g. workers blocking streets and resorting to different kinds of direct action).

13. The group’s coordinating committee will include comrades in charge of managing, moderating, and ensuring all members are informed of what is being done.

14. Managers and moderators do not have special privileges; they answer to the entire group.

15. Articles, stories, interviews, images and video recordings of the selected striking workers—and of the evolving situation around the strikes in question—will be the site’s only content. The aim is to get workers themselves to use the site as a platform through which they can express themselves and tell their story to an international audience.

16. For an article, story, interview, image or video to appear on the site, it must not contradict the ideas of Council Communism; anything related to current or historical political or economic events, class struggle and goals, and material that corresponds to the goals stated in the Program, are allowed.

17. Support for striking workers can take a variety of forms. Separate “task teams” will be created for publicizing information about a particular strike, researching the history of the enterprise and its ownership, translating texts and information, establishing contact with the families of the striking workers, coordinating support with working people in related enterprises and companies in the same chain of production and exchange.

Source:  https://www.facebook.com/SupportTheStrike/ (New site, new name since 1-7-2020)

One Comment on “Council communists of the world, organize (the workers, or yourselves?)

  1. Pingback: Trotskyist “council communism”? A warning | Left wing communism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: