Paul Mattick Jr. Introduction to “The Council Communist Reader”, May 2021

The Council Communist Reader, May 2021

Paperback ISBN: 978-8-8431-1458-0

Hardcover ISBN: 978-5-1431-2417-2

A Radical Reprint

Pattern Books

360 pages

It is certainly not true that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Human history is such a complex web of structures and activities, with different elements changing at different speeds, that any attempt to reproduce some feature of the past is bound to be inhibited by novel contexts. In fact, the real problem, far from that suggested by Santayana’s famous phrase, is that signaled by Marx’s observation that “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Actions guided by assumptions inherited from the past are likely to misfire, or at least lead in unexpected directions.

This is actually the real reason to pay attention to the (unrepeatable) past—to clarify the differences as well as continuities defining the present. For example, the recent revival of socialist ideas in the United States has led to a revival of social democracy, the idea of the gradual extension of democratic governance from politics to the economy, as if this old idea could simply be transplanted to a different historical moment. It seemed logical to 19th-century socialists that as the majority of people became wage-workers, the winning of voting rights by the whole adult population would eventually bring a party representing them to power, to legislatea reorganization of social life in their interests. Indeed, social-democratic parties came into existence all over Europe and even began to stir in the U.S. As they grew to the point of actually participating in government,however, they adapted to the realities of operating within the terms of capitalist politics, just as the trade unions associated with them naturally came to function as brokers of labor-power rather than as opponents of the wages system. This development was made painfully clear when the parliamentary representatives of the largest of the socialist parties, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), voted to pay for the First World War, thus abandoning their claimed fidelity to the international proletariat to support the national interests of the German ruling class.

This brought to a head the dissensions among socialists already aroused by the conflict between officialrevolutionary goals and the compromises with political reality required by practical party activity. The more radical members of the organization split to form the Independent Socialist Party, within which a minority agitated directly against the war. Apart from these political positions, the privations and destruction the war brought fostered popular opposition to it ; by 1916 there were already large strikes and demonstrations against the war in Berlin. Since the official political and trade-union organizations supported the war, these were organized unofficially, largely through a network of shop stewards in various workplaces. (For an outstanding short history of these experiences, see Martin Comack, Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918-1921 (University Press of America, 2012).)

The war was finally ended when German sailors ordered into one more big battle mutinied, arresting their officers and sending delegates to shore where they were immediately joined by tens of thousands of civilian workers and soldiers. Since the official left organizations were committed to the war, they organized themselves into sailors’, soldiers’, and workers’ councils, based on their workplaces; the shop stewards continued to play an important role in networking. Trains were commandeered by groups who traveled the country spreading the revolt. Prisons were emptied of political prisoners, including antiwar activists. The imperial government fled the country and the SPD took political power, proclaiming a socialist republic. The socialists received support from the military in exchange for a promise to get rid of the left. This was in their own interests, as the leftists, drawing the lesson of the revolutionary failure of party politics, looked instead to the direct rule of society by the workplace councils, linked through delegates sent to higher-order councils. These organizations, directly responsible to particular workplaces, in principle represented not political ideologies but the workers who elected delegates to them.

The war had also brought revolution to Russia. There, Lenin’s faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party, the Bolsheviks, had taken state power with the support of soldiers and workers who had occupied their factories, governing them with workers’ committees. The more politically active people, both workers and political activists from different parties, met in “soviets,” citywide councils, to set policy. The decisive action of the Bolsheviks offered a different model of organization to the former social democrats in Germany who wanted to extend the German upheaval into a social revolution; they formed a Communist Party in emulation of the Russians.

By 1921 both revolutions were at an end. In Russia the Bolshevik state, while fighting a civil war for control of the country, established a dictatorial regime, complete with secret police and prison system, crushing the other revolutionary groupings and using military force at Kronstadt to end a workers’ revolt demanding democratic rule by workers and soldiers. In Germany, the socialist government had employed the old imperial military to put down a revolt of Communists demanding that political power remain with the associated workers’ councils and not be passed to a parliament in which all parties, socialist and bourgeois, would be represented. This process was easier because the majority of workers had allegiance to the SPD; as a result the councils themselves voted their dissolution.

Although they ended in defeat, these attempts at socialist revolution, echoed at the time In many other countries (including even the United States, where a general strike in Seattle in 1919 led to the city’s brief governance by an elected workers’ committee) showed that, while the political forms inherited from the nineteenth century—parliamentary parties and trade unions—were incapable of serving revolutionary ends, when they want to act workers can improvise new organizational forms on the basis of their relations to each other in workplaces and living areas. These were the “councils” explored by activists who tried, during the events and afterwards, to understand this novel experience, in writings collected here.

Social-democratic parties could find room in the political landscape of the late-nineteenth and twentiethcenturies because an expanding capitalism generated enough profits to be able to afford wage increases andwelfare measures for the working class. The stagnation of the capitalist economy today explains the impossibility of reviving social-democratic parties and trade unions. In the same way, the Leninist type of revolutionary party was an adaptation of social-democracy to the special conditions of capitalistically underdeveloped countries, such as Russia was in 1917, which such parties sought to take in hand and turn into modern industrial states. Despite the efforts of numerous little groups, there is no place for them in today’s capitalism, already established throughout the world.

In contrast, the workers’ council, although this political form too first showed itself in the past, develops out of basic features of capitalism, which remain with us today. The “workers council” is not a recipe, but a principle. It is rooted in the social character of capitalist society, in which individuals are dependent on each others’ highly organized productive activity—today through global supply chains–for their material life. It is rooted also in the capacity of people, demonstrated in all the revolts that have disrupted the surface of capitalism since it first came into being, to break with assumptions about “the way things are.” The importance of the council idea is not the particular forms that radical activity took in the first decades of the twentieth century, but in its emphasis on people’s ability to organize themselves for social action independently of structures suitable to managing life in capitalist society. It is not by gradually preparing an organization for a future struggle, but by creating new modes of action in response to immediate needs and goals that it has proved possible to break with the forms of thought and modes of behavior bred in us by present-day existence. These old texts are still worth reading because they struggled not to create a new politica dogma or to celebrate particular experiences, now long in the past, but to explore the creative power workers can display when they transform their workplaces and living spaces into arenas for reshaping the world.

Paul Mattick, Jr.


Introduction [Paul Mattick Jr.]

1. Workers’ Control by Paul Mattick Sr.

2. Revolutionary Marxism by Paul Mattick Sr.

3. Karl Kautsky: From Marx to Hitler by Paul Mattick Sr.

4. The Struggle Against Fascism Begins with the Struggle Against Bolshevism by Otto Rühle

5. The Revolution is Not a Party Affair by Otto Rühle

6. The Passing of Marxian Orthodoxy by Karl Korsch

7. Marxism and the Present Task of the Proletarian Class Struggle by Karl Korsch

8. The World Revolution by Herman Gorter

9. Lenin’s Infantile Disorder…. and the Third International by Franz Pfemert

10. World Revolution and Communist Tactics by Anton Pannekoek

11. The Theory of the Collapse of Capitalism by Anton Pannekoek


Further Reading

Comment by F.C.

This re-edition in book form of some important texts of the German-Dutch Left is long overdue. In the USA and Canada, we can see a revived interest in council communism.
Inevitably Mattick’s introduction and choice of texts have been guided by his political preferences and by that of a part of the potential readers: an anti-party position that goes further than anti-bolshevism. Unfortunately, this blurs the understanding of some historical facts (f.e. why the later council communists cooperated with Lenin) and the origin and function of present revolutionaries, leaving them unorganized and without any influence.
In this sense, the reader lacks texts by the German-Dutch “Group of International Communists” around the experienced German revolutionary Jan Appel, author of Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution. Another author of texts essential for present readers is Willy Huhn.

2 Comments on “Paul Mattick Jr. Introduction to “The Council Communist Reader”, May 2021

  1. The old problematic question Communist Party , Workers’ Councils

    Critical evaluation of the text above

    Spanish version:

    1) F.C. added following critical remark to Mattick’s introduction. We elaborate here on this critique in terms of the relationship between the Workers’ Councils and the Communist Party.
    … “Mattick’s introduction and choice of texts have been guided by his political preferences and those of a part of the potential readers: an anti-party position that goes beyond anti-Bolshevism .Unfortunately this blurs the understanding of some historical facts. For example, why those revolutionaries who later became council communists, co-operated with Lenin [around 1914-1920]. The same goes for the understanding of the origin and function of today’s revolutionaries. This misunderstanding leaves them without organisation and without influence.
    In this respect, the reader misses texts by the German-Dutch “Group of International Communists” around the experienced German revolutionary Jan Appel, author of Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution. Another author of indispensable texts for today’s reader is Willy Huhn”.

    2) Paul Mattick Jr. writes
    “The imperial government fled the country and the SPD seized political power, proclaiming a socialist republic. The socialists received the support of the military in exchange for a promise to get rid of the left. This was in their own interest, as the leftists, learning the lesson of the revolutionary failure of party politics, sought instead the direct rule of society by works councils, linked through delegates sent to higher-order councils. These organisations, directly responsible for certain workplaces, did not in principle represent political ideologies, but the workers who elected their delegates”.
    There were various types of leftists in relation to the SPD. The communist left would give rise to the KPD, with the prominent presence of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. This party was in favour of the power of the workers’ councils, but it constituted a party and was linked to the Russian Bolshevik party, as were the various tendencies which gave rise to the KPD (notably the Spartacus League and the IKD). Subsequently, important dissensions were manifested within it, in particular over the trade unions and the parliament, giving rise to another new party, the KAPD, also a party and in a determined position to fight for the revolutionary power of the proletariat by means of workers’ councils. But the KAPD openly declared itself against the approach and praxis of Bolshevik substitutionism, according to which the dictatorship of the proletarian class coincides with the dictatorship of the communist party which is its vanguard. This position of the KAPD remains valid and is in line with a defence of the politically leading role of the party within the conscious action of the proletarian class where the party defends the world communist finality of the movement. It is the genuinely Marxist position and is particularly in keeping with the lessons of the Paris Commune and the various revolutionary struggles and processes in and after the First World War.
    It is therefore obvious that there were initially partisan expressions. Subsequently, there were major dissensions between the German-Dutch communist left and the Communist International, led by the Bolsheviks from Moscow, and a clear split and a development marked by many discussions and various divisions took place in this communist left. One such expression was later the GIC in Holland, which defended the need for communist organisation and the communist party, but with a different and conflicting approach to the Leninist-Bolsheviks.
    Subsequently there were various offshoots of what were known as council communists.
    The position and approach expressed by Paul Mattick Jr. is that of one of these strands, which denies the need for a communist party, although he advocates that council communists should group themselves into bodies that provide situation reports, critical assessments and provide guidelines on methodologies of struggle, but without at any time attempting to constitute a leading party of a communist type.

    3) In what has become known as councilism, the anti-party position is very marked, taking up Otto Rhüle’s theorisation, according to which parties belong to an outdated phase of capitalism, are necessarily bourgeois structures, and any attempt to shape a communist party leads to failure or to emulating in one way or another Bolshevism as an expression of the state capitalism of the USSR and its imperialist policy on an international scale.
    For an extension, see:
    Otto Rühle. Revolution is not a party affair. 1920.
    Otto Rühle: From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution 1924.

    4) The party form comes into being in a period of development of capitalism. Prior to this, proto-party forms exist, but they are still incipiently and contradictorily developing in relation to pre-capitalist forms of social division, representation and political action, which in turn, in the early stages of capitalism, manifest themselves in various forms.
    We read:
    “Different political factions that have struggled for power have existed for centuries. Some historical examples showing a certain proto-partisanship would be the Optimates and Populars in the Roman Senate, the Guelphs and Ghibellines during the Middle Ages or the Jacobins and Girondins in revolutionary France. However, the modern political party as we now understand it emerged in the 19th century in the Parliament of Great Britain with the structural organisation of the Tories and the Whigs in the Conservative and Liberal Party respectively”.
    Party forms of the proletariat appeared, in various forms, and in particular those advocated by internationalist Marxist communism as minority organizations of revolutionary communists, from the League of Communists in 1848 to the Communist International. The project of an International or World Communist Party for a future resurgence of proletarian revolution, was defended by both Bordiga and Gorter, despite their differences. And workers’ councils are also appearing, taking up forms of interclass and class collective association which came from the pre-capitalist past, and which in the development of capitalism manifested themselves in various forms.
    It is therefore wrong to assert that the councils respond to something purely proletarian class-consciously characteristic of capitalism and the proletarian party is a copy of the intrinsically bourgeois party form.
    On the other hand, the fact that a social form is born in a historical period does not necessarily determine that it can only be used by the ruling class, or that it is only worthwhile for the ruling class to use it. The proletariat uses various forms of organisation and participation for the defence and struggle against capital which are also used by capitalist forces, such as collective meetings, assemblies, co-ordinations, decisions taken by voting, pickets, legal or illegal action groups ….. etc, and this does not mean that their necessity and the validity of their use should be ruled out. Rather, what is relevant and necessary is to delimit well the conditions, contents and forms of their use, purifying those that produce unsatisfactory results or that are in open contradiction with the historical and social objectives of proletarian emancipation through the world revolution and the unity in the struggle of the proletariat of the various countries.

    5) The organisation of communists obeys motivations which are at once common and different from those expressed by the workers’ councils and various forms of organisation, coordination and struggle of the proletariat, not the immediate needs of this or that section of the proletariat, nor of this or that immediate situation of struggle, but a grouping to defend the common revolutionary, international and historical interests of the exploited and dominated class, of the proletariat.
    6) Therefore, in relation to the above, it is necessary to determine what is and what should be common and what should be differentiated and the various forms of linkage, their pros and cons. For this we must start from the real experience of the class struggle, with its consequent practical effects and its theoretical derivations.

    7) The negation of all party forms goes beyond the necessary critique of Bolshevik Leninism. We need to criticise forms of party activity, but not the party form itself, just as the defence of workers’ councils must be confined to their revolutionary expressions, while non-revolutionary ones need corresponding critique.

    8) Councilism, an ideologisation on the basis of council communism, and particularly the expression represented by Paul Mattick Jr’s approach, leads either to the undervaluing of the specifically communist organisation or to its outright negation, with many councilist concretisations expressing broadly and notoriously Bakuninist, anarcho-libertarian positions. The difficulties of proletarian class affirmation and its irregularities of conformation condition an amplification of such tendencies, and in particular of the latter, while also benefiting from the influence of various ideologies of an anti-bureaucratic type, that f.e. in the case of Trotskyism mask state-capitalism, or attribute state-capitalist tendencies to a new ruling class in stead of to the antagonistic devellopment of capital

    9) We need to group the internationalist communist forces, favouring the relevant critical evaluations, but putting the focus on the fact that the presence of organised communist positions is necessary for the proletarian struggle, both for its direct manifestations and for the subsequent periods where theoretical and practical lessons have to be elaborated, balances to avoid falling into mistakes and to affirm more consciously, deeply and extensively the achievements made, periods where bourgeois forces and ideologies make strong dents in the proletariat that should be confronted with vigour.

    The organisational form that such a grouping takes depends on various factors, and not only must the party form not be excluded, but it represents a permanent objective, to enable the proletariat to take up the communist struggle in practice, and not to lead the dominated and exploited class towards reformist objectives, or into dead ends that favour demoralisation, dispersion and the exhaustion of its capacities, for which petty-bourgeois ideologies, forces and movements are very effective in capitalist society.

    Anibal and Fredo Corvo


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