The Council Communist Readerhttp://libcom.org/library/council-communist-reader, May 2021
Paperback ISBN: 978-8-8431-1458-0
Hardcover ISBN: 978-5-1431-2417-2
A Radical Reprint
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
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.