GIC: Trotsky and Council Communism

First published 1938 in: Radencommunisme, 1e Jaargang No. 1 and 2.
Translation from Dutch: Hermann Lueer, published in 2021 in Put the whole state machinery into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax!, by Hermann Lueer (editor), Group of International Communists (author)

Second version, corrections by HC, 2-11-2021.

The Question

Among the tendencies that have influence among revolutionary workers, Trotskyism is really the only one with which a serious discussion of principles can be held. The CP, the Stalinist “Communist Party”, usually limits itself to personal insinuations, brute force where it has the power to do so, and parliamentary dodges to gain a semblance of power. Principled, factual discussion is not possible with them.

The Trotskyists boast of continuing the pure doctrine and tactics of Lenin, which Stalin abandoned. They are still only an opposition and have no power yet; they count on the spiritual power of Bolshevism, which brought about the Russian Revolution; therefore, they have every reason to fight objectively and with arguments. Therefore, the opposition between Bolshevism and council communism today practically manifests itself in the opposition between council communists and Trotskyists. Their opposition is an opposition of principles that can be seriously discussed; and such a discussion can only lead to clarification.

We shall therefore take up a sentence in which Trotsky clearly expresses his rejection of the principles of council communism. We find it in an article by Trotsky on “Bolshevism and Stalinism”. There he said following up and in reply to the criticisms that Gorter and others had raised against Lenin’s tactics:

“The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard. In itself the necessity for state power arises from the insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity. In the revolutionary vanguard, organised in a party, is crystallised the aspiration of the masses to obtain their freedom. Without the confidence of the class in the vanguard, without support of the vanguard by the class, there can be no talk of the conquest of power. In this sense the proletarian revolution and dictatorship are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard. The Soviets are the only organised form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given this form only by the party. This is proved by the positive experience of the October Revolution and by the negative experience of other countries (Germany, Austria, finally, Spain). No one has either shown in practice or tried to explain articulately on paper how the proletariat can seize power without the political leadership of a party that knows what it wants.”  (1)

Here the basic conception of Trotsky and Leninism becomes clear. There is a sharp difference between the small minority of competent and conscious leaders, the “vanguard”, the party on the one hand, and the great mass of workers on the other. In the struggle and afterward, they each have a very different place and very different functions: This vanguard must plan the struggle, set the program, know what it wants and how it will proceed – the masses must follow, trust, obey, and give strength to the actions by their numbers. And that it can and must go only in this way, through this relationship of a consciously organized vanguard and an unconscious mass of followers, is then proven by the example of Russia (and the failure in other countries).

Russia and Western Europe

But can the Russian Revolution really serve as an example for the working class in Western Europe and America? The differences, here and there, are far too great for that. In Russia, a barbaric tsardom ruled over a crude peasantry led by a force of rough and uneducated officials. Only a small percentage of the population were workers, crowded into a few cities with large factories. These workers were still half peasants whom hunger drove from the countryside to the factory, where they then became susceptible to collective action in the form of strikes and demonstrations.

Intellectuals had waged a heroic struggle against Tsarism for decades, yearning for Western European conditions in which they could take a free and respected place in a developing capitalist society. From these revolutionary intellectuals emerged the Bolshevik party, which had adopted Marx’s theory of capitalism and class struggle from the West, spread it among the workers, placed itself at the head of their struggle, and made them (2) a force for the overthrow of Tsarism.

Here we already have the first major opposition residing in numbers. In the countries of big capitalism the working class constitutes the big mass of the population. Here its aim and task boil down to finding its own form of organization, in order to master industry and big enterprise, which it has in its hands, as a planned whole.

Compared to the large mass of peasants, in Russia the working class itself was a small group. If only for this reason the case of Russia cannot be an example for countries of big capitalism. The same goes for the aim. What it was to be in Russia, the overthrowing of Tsarism, concurred with what had already happened in Western Europe centuries before; the desire was set to a condition of political and spiritual, civil liberty, which has long been realized in Western Europe and America. In these countries industrial development has reached its highest degree of technical perfection; and hence transition to communism is possible.

Here the objective is therefor the destruction of capitalism that has come to the end of its development. Russia only stood at the very first beginning of this development; there a revolution could only lead to the overcoming of the barbaric primitive rigidity and to taking the road of this development. How can someone arrive at wanting to impose the necessary conditions for the latter on the transition towards communism of technically highly developed big capitalism?

This is not only a question of tools, but in the first place one of people. A mode of production consists of technique and people, classes; what we call the needs and necessities of technical development becomes conscious as thoughts and will in these classes.

The fact that in Russia at that time and in the West today, because of the difference in technical development, these people, these classes, are completely different, is the main point at issue here. In Russia, there was practically no bourgeoisie; the country was still in a pre-bourgeois stage of development. The workers had no bourgeoisie to fight and defeat, only a decayed state power to destroy that collapsed because of the war.

In Western Europe and America, by contrast, the bourgeoisie reigns, a class as powerful as none before. It rules over all means of production, which, thanks to highly developed technique, have become a powerful world apparatus that is becoming more perfect every day. It is the master of all the wealth of the world, with which it can buy and subjugate everything. It does not consist only of a handful of big capitalists: Behind the big financiers and monopolists who dominate economic life, there is a class of millions of smaller independent entrepreneurs, who fight vigorously to reach the top and become rich by exploiting the workers and by a competitive struggle among themselves.

And it is not only through this material power that the bourgeoisie rules. In the centuries of its rise and rule, a spiritual and intellectual life, a bourgeois culture, has grown up which permeates the whole of society. This intellectual life is inculcated in everyone through school and the press and has thus become a general mode of thinking: for example, that everyone must take care of himself and build his own fortune, that poverty is the punishment for laziness or incapacity, that achievement leads to the top positions. The fact that this bourgeois spirit still has the majority of the working class in its grip is the main source of its weakness and immaturity. Can anyone seriously believe that a minority group, a “vanguard”, a party of revolutionaries, however enthusiastic and capable, would be able to vanquish this class?

That Russian leaders could believe this is only understandable because they did not see the problem at all. They thought that the issue in Western Europe was the same as in Russia: to get rid of a few princes, military and aristocratic cliques, and big financiers who were hated by the whole people, and then to put themselves in their place as a better government. The Russian Bolsheviks were ignorant of the internal structure of Western Europe, the essential nature of the bourgeoisie, and its deep-rooted intellectual power. They did not know how much their own doctrine of the vanguard that must lead and control the masses belonged to the bourgeois mode of thought. And the young Western European workers and intellectuals who, awakened and roused by the Russian Revolution, joined the Communist Party were not aware of this either. They assumed that these outstanding revolutionaries, who had destroyed the most powerful empire in Europe, could now also carry out the world revolution.

Today, 20 years later, we see what has become of it; we see that the Bolshevik tactics have been put to the test: the bourgeoisie is more powerful, the workers are more powerless than ever before. It is all the more remarkable that one of the old Bolshevik leaders continues to recommend the same Bolshevik tactics.

There is only one power capable of overcoming the bourgeoisie: The working class! It is not yet strong enough, otherwise, it would already have won. But that it will grow in strength until it is victorious, we recognize by the abilities which are in it, which have grown in it through society and which will continue to grow by social development.

The workers of Western Europe and America do not come, as the Russians did at the time of the Revolution, fresh from the primitive world of village communism, still full of the barbaric ignorance and the superstitious modes of thought of pre-bourgeois times. They are the product of centuries of bourgeois development, in which their fathers passed through a school of strong individualism as independent small farmers and citizens. Then, impoverished by the rise of capitalism, victims of competition, driven to the city and the factory, deeply depressed, they learned to struggle in community, the first beginning of their communist education.

The machine, big business, drills them to act in an organized way; the old individualism is not erased, but they learn to fit in as part of the whole, overcoming personal obstinacy and personal fear. Of course, not all are equal; there are groups of workers who have been exploited for centuries in the same slums of the old industrial cities, so emaciated and oppressed that one doubts whether they can ever free themselves. But the great mass of tens of millions, drawn into it with the rise of capitalism, educated and formed with and by capitalism, is growing, in constant struggle, though in ups and downs, to ever greater inner strength.

If capitalism were a stable, solid form of production, they would conquer their place in it. Now, as capitalism collapses in ever worse crises, as it becomes more and more impossible to continue production appropriately under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, the working class will have to make its organization so strong that it can take control of production.

If we now look once again at the Bolshevik doctrine of Trotsky, it becomes clear that it arose out of and is part of the conditions in which the Bolsheviks found the Russian working class during their revolution. Their mistake is that they want to apply this doctrine to the working class and the conditions in the countries of big capitalism.

Vanguard or Rearguard?

The contrast between Trotsky’s Bolshevik and council-communist views is that he divides the working class into a skillfully leading vanguard and the follower masses, whereas we believe that it can only be victorious by acting as one closed unity.

But are we not assuming too much the illusion of equality among workers? Are there not such great differences in talent, ability, and character among them that it is impossible for all of them to arrive at revolutionary insights and actions at the same time, so that a small selected group must automatically lead and guide?

Of course, it is true that workers, like all people, have unequal personal qualities, abilities, intelligence, courage, stamina. The swiftest minds will be the quickest to take up new insights , the bravest will be the first to be prepared for action. They will be the guides, providing insight and council to the others, act as leaders in actions.

The difference with the degenerated forms of the old worker’s movement is that they will not be professional leaders, that they do not isolate themselves as a leadership group, for whom “leading” becomes a profession with its own interests and who remain “leaders” with means of power, even if they have fallen behind the others in insight.

Any large group of workers, like the staff of a large enterprise, is made up of people with the most different talents and properties. But they must ultimately act as one body, as a tightly knit unit. They must therefore bring their insight and will to agreement; who understands everything best must convince the others, the most zealous must carry along, the cautious must overcome their fear; as a summary of the action of the economic forces on all these components of the whole, the act comes into being.

Now one may ask: Would it not be better if the most capable, the most far-sighted decide, and the others, who would otherwise only hold back, follow blindly? But then the answer must be: The workers’ struggle is not about one act, not about one leap that must be dared and by which the struggle is decided; it is about continued wrestling, about perseverance and facing ever new difficulties and problems, and thereby becoming mature for the task of fully organizing society.

In this, the quality of everyone matters always and everywhere; in each case, only as much can be achieved as corresponds to the inner strength of the entire class. It is a struggle for life, for existence itself, which cannot be waged in the good faith that someone else, a wise leader, will already know.

The science of biology teaches that in a given species (i.e. also in humans) each characteristic occurs in different degrees in different individuals, an average degree mostly, stronger and weaker degrees somewhat less, and the most strongest and most weakest degrees much rarer. The big mass with normal intelligence, an average degree of insight, ability, courage, and other characteristics determines the course of the worldwide development by the way in which the great economic and political crises affect it and how it reacts to them.

The bourgeois sociology of the 19th Century emphasizes the great men, the leaders, to whom it attributes most of the progress, and contrasts this small minority of superior leaders with the big mass of the indolent, the simple-minded, the indifferent and incompetent, who are passively subjected to history.

It will be clear that this way of dividing humanity is only a reflection, and meant as a justification, of the fact that a minority, as the ruling class, subjugates and exploits the big mass. The particularly capable become rich, the incapable mass remains poor. This is not the first and only case that is presented as the result of an eternal law of nature, although it is only a social, and therefore a transient fact. This bourgeois transformation of the biological fact of human differences is also the basis of the Bolshevik doctrine – with the difference that those who are the “best” for the bourgeoisie are the worst for Trotsky. Even his “vanguard” of the best, which leads the incompetent mass and thinks in its place, is in principle and in germ a new ruling class.

There will always be among the workers, as in every class, some who are more gifted and capable, who recognize new conditions and necessities more quickly, and from whom, by propaganda and example, a great driving, revolutionary force on the others can emanate. If these now unite into a group, a party, which organizes itself ever firmer as a vanguard towards the masses, a difference in character between them and the masses will become ever more evident. Especially with the leaders, who then become professional revolutionaries; their living environment, and thus their spiritual milieu. Where the imprint and lack of freedom are very strong, and they therefore have to work much in secret, a conspiratorial mentality develops, as was common in the history of bourgeois revolutions.

They see the necessity of the revolution very strongly and talk constantly about the revolution, the possibilities for development associated with it appear to them as an almost tangible reality, they try to accelerate development, and then see the unshakable passivity of the masses as something unnatural, as backwardness due to inferior qualities. But these masses live in the real world, they feel the power of capital and their own immaturity directly and instinctively, which cannot be taken away by a few flaming appeals, but only by action and struggle, when this is forced upon them by a stronger pressure from capital.

The “vanguard” thus lives in a world different from [that of] the masses; their difference in thinking and feeling consists not only of becoming aware of the new, growing social reality more or less strongly, but increasingly of the impact of a different reality as well. Such vanguard revolutionaries consider themselves the leaders and builders of the better world of the future they imagine; and if the whole class does not immediately follow, this is one more reason to feel superior to the inertia and callousness of the masses.

They fail to realize that another process, the process of self-development and self-organization of the masses, is slowly emerging and must emerge as the essential foundation of the new society. They counteract this by their propaganda, which seems to point to a faster, easier way. Thus their doctrine becomes an obstacle in the reorientation of the workers’ movement.

Although at certain moments they can serve as a driving force, precisely because of their bourgeois vanguard theory, they soon lose contact with what is growing as a genuine revolutionary force in the masses. While they think of themselves as a vanguard, they increasingly become a rearguard, unable to follow the real movement of the working class.

Theory and Movement

According to Bolshevik doctrine, the workers not only need a vanguard but also a vanguard of intellectuals. In another article of the same Bolshevik-Leninist organ “The R.S.A.P. and the 4th International” in “De enige Weg, orgaan der groep Bolsjewiki–Leninisten”, [‘The Only Path’] of 13 April 1938) we read the following: «Lenin has shown that the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose completely independently of the spontaneous development of the workers movement, that “it arose as a natural and inevitable consequence of the development of the ideas of the revolutionary socialist intellect.” Lenin has proved that the theory of scientific socialism has been introduced into the working class by the most progressive representatives of the bourgeois intellect and has to be carried in time and again, that the revolutionary party worthy of its name, also does not emerge from the spontaneous workers’ struggle, but must be consciously and systematically created.” (3)

This means that the workers surely know how to fight on their own, but the socialist goal and the general understanding can only come from the intellectuals. The intellectuals develop the aim and theory by themselves, without interference from the workers’ movement. Without this theoretical help from the intellectuals, the workers would, as it were, hit out in the fog and darkness, not seeing a goal and not gaining greater understanding. And it is not even enough that Marx and Engels have developed socialist theory once and for all: It will still remain out of reach for the workers, if socialist intellectuals do not propagate this theory among them time and again.

There is always a grain of truth in these views which, though in a very limited sense, becomes a semblance of truth. No one among us doubts the great value and fundamental importance of Marxism for the workers’ movement, of the theory of Marx and Engels. In many cases, the theory indeed was first propagated by intellectuals. But did this theory come to the workers as a gift from the outside, from the world of bourgeois intellect?

Anyone familiar with the intellectual development of Marx and Engels knows that they began as bourgeois revolutionaries who were then pushed in a new direction by the influence of French socialism and the English workers’ movement. Without the huge class movements of the English workers, the massive strikes and demonstrations associated with the struggles of Chartism, they could never have arrived at their concept of overcoming capitalism through proletarian class struggle.

That Lenin did not see this was due, first, to the fact that he himself had never taken up this core idea of Marxism – that the ideas for the material world are determined by society and its class struggle – and could therefore believe that new ideas could arise in the heads of intellectuals. And secondly, to the fact that he judged the entire workers’ movement in the light of Russia, where indeed since 1900 the socialist intellect, fed with Western theory, had to bring socialism to the totally ignorant but spontaneously resistant workers.

The emergence of socialist theory is precisely a striking example of the reciprocal influence of practice and theory – how new theoretical insights emerge from the practice of life and struggle, and how these in turn have a stimulating effect on practice. However, they should not be considered as two completely different and opposite things. With today’s extensive specialization of brain work and manual labor, it is sometimes thought that one kind of people, the intellectuals, can only work with their heads, and the other kind, the workers, can only work with their hands. Applied to the movement, this means that one kind only beats with their fists and the other one, sitting in a study, only thinks, theorizes and “directs”.

In reality, there is no manual work for which the mind is not needed – even if the factory tries to automate it; and no theoretical work is possible without data from the practice. Everyone who works in the workers’ movement also reflects on it, forms general thoughts that guide his actions; he forms and follows a theory, be it a more or less primitive one. So it is not true that the socialist idea came only from the outside, from the bourgeois intellectuals. In the first half of the 19th Century, it was often the workers themselves who proclaimed communism in independent writings. It goes without saying that in an emerging and growing capitalist society, new ideas, many of them communist and socialist, appear everywhere and in all kinds of circles.

In all classes – and not only among intellectuals – there are people who take in and reflect on their world with a clear mind, search for the rules and meaning of the development, formulate theories. Intellectuals have the advantage that they are used to working with abstract general concepts and are therefore better able to present general relationships in the form of logically constructed theories and compare them with other theories; but to do this they usually have to extract information from the ideas of others that do not come from their own life experience.

Of this whole intellectual movement which accompanies the social movement, only the final results, the most comprehensive theories, and their authors, are often mentioned later; and so it seems as if these drew the whole theory only from their heads, and one forgets all the intermediate work of reflection in which hundreds and thousands in all degrees and forms took part. And all these ideas and systems of ideas are then used again in the struggle, gathered from wherever a useful thought can be found; whether it comes from a worker, a schoolmaster, or a scholar is immaterial. It will often happen that a nascent workers’ movement applies a more primitive theory, that suits its initial understanding, and ignores the much better and more perfect theory which it can only make full use of at a later stage.

The coincidental circumstance that a century ago a genial head like that of Marx plunged itself into the social struggle, already clearly foresaw in those early days the future role of the working class, and could develop such a profound social theory, has made that in later times “theory” has always been presented as a perfect doctrine against the ponderous, difficult-to-climb, and constantly stumbling practice of the working-class movement. This also generates the appearance as if communist theory is offered to the otherwise hopelessly struggling and ignorant working class, as a gift from an alien, different world. In the process, sight is lost of how much this theory was based in its origins on the practice of a mass workers’ movement and on a rich literature of new ideas connected with it.

Had this person not existed, the same theory would also have come into being, but more laboriously, later, in fragments by different persons, not so clearly and beautifully as one coherent whole. Because, continuously, thinking heads deal with the practical questions of their lives and derive theoretical teachings from them, and continuously the workers in their struggle reach out to any teachings they think can bring about clarification.

Moreover, when we talk about intellectuals, we must distinguish two different meanings of this word. We have always spoken here of people with intellect, such as can be found in all classes. But then this is identified with the particular class of intellectuals, which fulfills a certain social function and occupies an increasingly important place, especially in modern big capitalism. In the bourgeois revolutions, the intellectuals as a class have always played an important role as leaders, theorists and spokesmen; for those revolutions also opened up free paths for them in a developing capitalism. They played the same role in the Russian revolution, and here too they fought for their own future as a leading class. Bolshevism-Leninism wants to assign this role to them for the proletarian revolution as well, and for this, the argument must serve that the working class needs theory for its liberation struggle, which can be brought to it only by the intellectuals.

From this side, the council communists are charged with the narrow-mindedness of suspiciously wanting to exclude the intellectuals. The truth in this is that the council communists very clearly see the difference in social aim that workers and intellectuals, by force of the position and nature of their class, must set for themselves; and that the class aim of the intellectuals boils down to maintaining exploitation and class domination. However, as far as the place of individuals as participants in the struggle is concerned, this question does not arise for council communism. For its fundamental principle is that the workers themselves must decide about all their collective acts and combative actions.

If the workers would act as executive, powerful fists on behalf of the thinking heads of their leaders, then it would depend on what kind of leaders these were; i.e., that these thoughts cannot, as with for example intellectuals, be determined by conditions of life and interests different from their own ones. But when they do not act on the authority of others, but only on the basis of their own insight, of what they themselves understand and master, then it is their cause to form as comprehensive a picture as possible. Regardless of where the clarification is obtained from, they are responsible for themselves and follow the understanding they have achieved for themselves.

We will return to this question in detail in a following article.

II

In the previous issue of ‘Radencommunisme’ an article was published against the views of the Trotskyists. It was directed primarily against their view that the proletariat can come to power only in the person of its vanguard, and specifically “in the vanguard organized as a party”. Quite rightly the focus was on the differences in social and economic structure between Russia and the highly developed capitalist countries. This difference shows that one can speak of the “conquest of power” for both Russia and the highly developed capitalist countries, but that in both cases one speaks about very different things. In other words, the “conquest of power” in the highly developed capitalist countries covers quite different issues than in the Russia of 1917.

In what follows we will however look more closely at this famous “vanguard theory” at the hand of the practical course of the class struggle, of what Trotsky calls the “positive experience of the October Revolution” and the negative experience of other countries (Germany, Austria, and finally Spain).

Before we get to that, however, we must make a confession, because Trotsky so brilliantly demonstrates our emptiness. He says: “No one has either shown in practice or tried to explain articulately on paper how the proletariat can seize power without the political leadership of a party that knows what it wants.” 

We must confess that we do not know anyone who has proved this in practice either. By the way, it would be interesting to meet such an exemplary class fighter. And as for writing it down, we fail here too. We are just ordinary Marxists. These have no recipe book, but can only point out, based on class relations, based on experience in struggle, what questions the working class will face and what tendencies there are within the working class to solve them.

But we are also convinced that the working class will always find all kinds of solutions and forms of struggle that no one has propagated on forehand or anticipated. We are thinking not only of the spontaneous formation of workers’ councils but also of the great “sit-down” movements in France and America. Did the patented Trotskyist vanguard perhaps propagate this kind of struggle in France and America? Let them calmly admit that the masses chose this method of struggle without first asking anyone for advice. To explain clearly on paper how the proletariat will come to power is something that only fantasists can do, who know that paper is patient. Only one thing is certain: that the working masses will come to power in the form of councils. But what zigzags the working class will take in the process cannot be estimated in advance. So we frankly admit that we have no recipe book for the conquest of power. But one thing we do know for sure. And that is that it is not possible with this “iron vanguard”, this “thinking head” of the working class. The entire history of the workers’ movement, from the Russian October Revolution to the present day, is a single proof of the absurdity of the views of the “thinking head” to pilot the workers into the right harbor. But it is not easy to learn from the practical course of the class struggle. And many can’t do that at all, once they’ve bought into the idea that they themselves are so terribly conscious and the rest are simply backward.

The Positive Proof of Trotsky

But let us now move on to a closer look at the course of the class movement over the past twenty years. Trotsky claims that in the course of the October Revolution (Russia) we have “positive” proof of the working class coming to power in the person of its vanguard, here the Bolshevik Party. Yes, one must dare to do so! For us, the course of the October Revolution is one of the most brilliant proofs that it is nonsense that the working class comes to power in the person of the party. The much vaunted “conscious vanguard” has produced a state in which this “thinking head” performs the function of the ruling state bureaucracy and has the characteristics of a ruling class in everything. The “vanguard” culls the Russian working class in a way that makes the conditions in England at the beginning of capitalism around 1830 look like child’s play. With what bestial despotism the “vanguard” “leads” the Russian masses, one can get an idea of by reading Ante Ciliga’s unvarnished, simply narrative book, “In the Land of the Great Lie”. (4) If the Russian Revolution can prove anything, it is precisely that the working class cannot come to power in the person of the party as the vanguard.

The new ruling class in Russia, the famous vanguard, is now in the process of disposing of its revolutionary past, for all the older revolutionaries who still remind of that past have been summarily put to the sword. There is no longer any place in Russia for people whose thinking is still connected with the class struggle of the proletariat. For even this proletariat will sooner or later take up the struggle against the “conscious vanguard”. With the steady growth of the masses that became proletarians, not only the power of the new ruling bourgeoisie grew, but at the same time also the power that threatens it.

Trotsky speaks of a “Thermidor” in the Russian Revolution, meaning that the Bolshevik party has abandoned its revolutionary principles. He wants to hold on to these principles and believes that the party can remain attached to <affiliated with> the proletariat if it is in possession of state power. However, he has never been able to show how such a feat can be achieved. In his opinion, the development that has made the vanguard the new ruling class is due to Stalin’s wrong policies. Such an explanation, however, is not to be taken seriously, for it says nothing other than that history is the work of great men. From this we can only deduce that Trotsky does not want to see, or cannot see, the obvious reasons for this development. Namely, that the vanguard, along with the state power, also takes over its function. It must rule over the mass, and that puts it in opposition to the proletariat, even if it tries to disguise this with all sorts of phrases. Once state power is seized, the “vanguard” has no other choice: it must continue to take measures that strengthen the position of power of the state. And these measures, by their very nature, can only be directed against those who are ruled by the state power, the proletariat, and the peasant masses.

Workers’ Democracy

There is no middle way. Even a so-called “workers’ democracy” as demanded by Trotsky cannot change this. This democracy, which does not change the actual command over the political and economic means of the power of the bureaucracy, has even less meaning than the well-known bourgeois democracy, which has no hold on the real position of power of the possessing class either. On the contrary, “democratic” institutions are only created, if they serve to strengthen state power.

By the way, Trotsky is not known to advocate a democracy aimed at reducing or breaking down the powers and positions of power of the state apparatus.

Moreover, it is not possible to reduce or break down the position of power of the state by way of the ballot box. This is a question of class struggle. Especially in a country where all economic power is concentrated in the hands of a certain group, even if this group calls itself the “vanguard of the proletariat”, “democracy” is ineffective. This ruling class as well does not step aside faced with the results of the ballot box. If the proletariat wants to liberate itself and realize communism, it must also break down the state power built up by the vanguard. The proletarian revolution is not only pitted against the rule of the bourgeois class but also against the state power in the hands of a party. The liberation of the proletariat is nothing other than the abolition of wage labor, the appropriation of the right of disposal over the means of production and the products by the mass itself, without detours via state power. Bolshevik theory obviously sees no difference between the state and society. To them, control of social life by the state is the same as control of social life by the producers and consumers. In this field, too, Leninism or Trotskyism has not yet got through to Marxism.

The example given by Trotsky as positive therefore proves exactly the opposite. It proves that also in Russia the proletariat did NOT come to power in the person of the “vanguard”. The positive example only shows how the “vanguard” installed itself as the new ruling, i.e. exploiting class. Of course, we know that the backward structure of Russia did not allow any other possibility. But this does not give anyone the right to claim that in Russia the proletariat came to power in the person of the Bolshevik Party as a “vanguard”.

The November Revolution in Germany

Finally, we come to Trotsky’s negative examples. In Germany, Austria and Spain, the proletariat could not seize power because, according to Trotsky, the revolutionary vanguard could not come to power. Yes, this now becomes a difficult case. The question is: who and what is in effect this “vanguard”? Who is the judge of this? How many of these “iron vanguards” and “thinking heads” of the proletariat we don’t already have here in Holland? Each “thinking head” calls the other “thinking head” a muddle-head; when the class struggle intensifies, they call each other counter-revolutionary, and if one of them were in power, it would put an end to the other’s intense thinking with a bullet. For only one big mast fits on a ship.

In the German Revolution, too, there were several contenders for the role of the “vanguard”, eager to gain possession of power. First and foremost this were Social Democracy and the trade union movement. Trotsky would probably not recognize them as vanguards. But the masses disagreed and elected the Social Democrats and trade union officials to their workers’ councils, and they elected Social Democrats to state power. Trotsky, of course, is of the opinion that the KPD was the “authentic” vanguard. And if it had succeeded in seizing power, communism in Germany would have been assured. However, we reserve the right to doubt this “authenticity”. The first work of the KPD was precisely to fight to the utmost the autonomous organizations of the workers that had emerged from the revolution, the organizations on the foundation of the enterprises. It threw out of the KPD the revolutionaries who fought under the slogan “All Power to the Workers’ Councils” and set about “conquering” the trade unions. It made up for the loss of the revolutionary workers by seeking connection with the left-wing Social Democrats of the USP (Independents). Thus, the KPD already began persecuting the autonomous proletarian organizations when it was not even in possession of state power. Indeed, it is a tempting prospect for the proletariat if this “authentic” vanguard came into possession of all means of power of the modern state. Yet it was also Trotsky who prescribed this tactic for Germany.

Thus, the KPD was not given the chance to play the role of counterrevolution but had to leave this to Social Democracy. Nevertheless, practice has sufficiently shown where the journey would go under the leadership of the “conscious” vanguard of the KPD. This becomes perfectly clear to us when we bring to mind what the task of a party is, once it has attained state power. According to Leninism, the proletariat is in power when “its” vanguard has seized state power. Of course, it is nonsense that the working class would strike or carry out all kinds of mass movements against itself when it has already seized power. The purpose of the strike weapon is to bring the masses into fighting formation, but once they themselves have become the ruling power in the state, construction, the new organization, is on the agenda. The “vanguard” takes this organization in hand and cannot let itself be thrown off course by autonomous movements of working masses. The restoration of order, i.e., the dissolution of mass movements, is the first task of a party that has come to power. This is true for all parties: After seizing power, the party program must be carried through, and everything that does not toe the line is destroyed as a left or right deviation.

The Restoration of Order

When Social Democracy gained state power in Germany, this “vanguard of socialism” began to realize its program, the expansion of bourgeois democracy. To this end, all autonomous aspirations of the workers had to be eradicated. A revolutionary division of sailors, unwilling to submit to the authority of the vanguard and nestled in the Marstall in Berlin, was machine-gunned down, leading to the well-known Spartacus uprising of January [1919]. This was followed in February and March by the disarming of autonomous armed formations of workers and soldiers in Braunschweig and Bremen-Wilhelmshafen under the pressure of cannons and machine guns. The same in the Munich council republic.

Thus the workers were first deprived of the military means of power. Then the time is ripe for the second phase of the assertion of the power of this “vanguard”. This is the attack on the positions of power that the workers’ councils had seized in the days of November [1918]. What were these positions of power?

In almost all enterprises, the workers had elected an enterprise council from among themselves, which, although it did not manage the enterprise, took the regulation within the enterprise in hand to a large part. It often decided on the hiring and firing of workers, on the regulation of working hours, and on the wages. Naturally, the entrepreneurs took up resistance, for which they could count on the Social Democratic “vanguard” … of the counterrevolution. They refused to pay the higher wages, and so no money could be taken from the banks for disbursement. Or they closed the enterprises (Hamburg – shipyards) to purge them of revolutionaries. The workers who went to work found the enterprise occupied by soldiers and were welcomed by machine-gun fire when they tried to force their way through the gate.

The entire year of 1919 is fought out on this front. Strikes and lockouts take place everywhere, and the trade union movement again plays its role in bringing this movement “to a quick and good end”. Together with the entrepreneurs, they work for the complete victory of the entrepreneurs in the enterprise, while the working conditions have to be regulated by collective agreements. These agreements were then made law by the government. And the Enterprise Councils Act of February 1920 puts an end to any autonomous movement of the enterprise councils, by limiting their function to controlling compliance with the collective agreements.

This liquidated the last autonomous position of power of the enterprise councils of November [19]18. Nevertheless, in March 1920 (Kapp Putsch) and in the Central- German uprising of 1921, the workers tried to regain the lost ground, but without results.

In Spain

For reasons of space, it is not possible to describe the course of the Spanish movement. We have done so on several occasions in the P.I.C.. (5) It should be noted, however, that the basic features of the struggle in Spain are very similar to those of the German Revolution. Here, too, the central government, which is in power, subdues all forces that can challenge the power of this “vanguard”. Whenever the militias did not submit to the authority of the government, they are left without weapons and condemned to impotence or decimated at lost posts by the military machine of the fascists. And where village communities and factory managements installed by workers infringe on private property, the central government steps in to put an end to it.

Trotskyism as Vanguard

The working class did not take much pleasure in all these “vanguards” when they were in possession of state power. But of course, the Trotskyists don’t recognize these servants of capital as “vanguards” of socialism. Yes, neither do we. We only claim that the workers would not be better off, if a “real vanguard” of, say, Trotskyists were to nestle in state power. Just as the Trotskyists do not recognize the Social Democrats as vanguard of the self-liberating working class, we do not recognize the Trotskyists as such. We are convinced that the Trotskyists, as masters of the state apparatus, would persecute the propaganda for an autonomous class movement just as fiercely as Trotsky and Lenin persecuted the worker’s oppositions in Russia. What reason, then, have we to see in the Trotskyists the “real” vanguard? The fundamental mistake of Trotskyism is that it has no idea of the challenges facing the highly developed capitalist countries. We have learned this from the rise and fall of the German Revolution. The emergence and activity of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Germany gave us a picture, albeit a very incomplete one, of the spontaneous organization of the working masses and of the difficulties they faced. They constituted active political bodies like enterprise units, army formations, or in whatever way real life brought them together as a functioning social body under their own direct leadership. And these organizations, which directly embodied the power of the masses, began to associate into a single body of councils at the local and national levels. That is, they aimed to bring all social life under their direct leadership and management.

The working masses did not get that far. Trotsky seeks the cause in the fact that a conscious vanguard could not seize power. But these magic formulas are of no use to us! It should have been clear to everyone that the inner strength of the masses did not go beyond ending the war and eliminating the military regime. On the immediately following question of whether political power should be exercised by either the workers’ and soldiers’ councils or by a party or by a parliamentary government, the masses were divided. And when it came to eliminating capital ownership in economic life by placing the leadership over production in the hands of the enterprise councils, the majority of the mass was foreign to it, while another part wanted to TRANSFER IT TO THE STATE. In other words, the consciousness of their class task was not yet sufficiently present. The questions of communist organization were only raised for the first time, and directly in their practical form, in the enterprises themselves and in the political struggle organizations of the workers’ councils.

The Trotskyists and Leninists will not deny all this. But they believe that this unconsciousness will always be so. The mass does not know what it wants, but the party does. And therefore, the party must lead the struggle, and it must do so by managing the state and economic life.

But here they get into an insoluble contradiction. That is to say: The “vanguard”, claims the leadership of social-political and of economical life in the name of the insufficient degree of consciousness of the masses. The workers cannot yet do it themselves, so the vanguard will do it. Translated into the language of economy, this means that labor must still appear as wage labor because the masses cannot yet master social life themselves without the detours of the state. Therefore, it is self-evident in Trotskyist thought that wage labor must be preserved at least immediately after the party seizes power! This is the direct consequence of their conception of the “insufficient cultural level of the mass”, as Trotsky calls it. Right! Thus we know exactly where we are at. It means that the propagandists of an autonomous class movement today are “left phrase threshers”, and when the “vanguard” is in power, they are called dangerous counter-revolutionaries who must soon be eliminated. Because after all an autonomous class movement is not historically possible?

Seen from the line of development of the working class in the last 20 years, which by trial and error points in the direction of the autonomous class movement, Trotskyism already (or still?) lags behind many revolutionary workers in class consciousness. A fact that we could also observe in the German revolution with that other “vanguard”, the KPD. First in the Russian, then in the German revolution, the masses began to struggle autonomously for the first time on a large scale, and in the following years, this process continues in the wild movements all over the world. Certainly, the class consciousness of the masses is still far from being deep enough to act as a close whole. But this deficit cannot be supplemented by a vanguard. And so these masses will continue to struggle on their own until they have freed themselves from the old notions of leaders and vanguards taking away their task. The ultimate aim of the class action is to abolish the class division in society. The political power that the “vanguard” seeks, in Trotsky’s sense, leads to the re-establishment of a class rule exercised by the vanguard. The slogan “All Power to the Workers’ Councils” is therefore diametrically opposed to the slogan “Political Power into the Hands of the Vanguard”. The one excludes the other. The task of a real vanguard of the proletariat cannot be to try to take over the function of the masses, but to do everything that strengthens the consciousness of the whole class, that deepens its insight into its task, the autonomous management of the whole social life; in a word, the task of a real vanguard is to want no power for its own organization, but to place itself entirely at the service of the slogan: All power to the workers’ councils.

Notes

1 Leon Trotsky, Bolsjewisme en Stalinisme (‘De Enige Weg’,- “The Only Path” – Organ of the group of Bolshevik-Leninists; April 13 and 27, May 11, 1938 ). English: Stalinism and Bolshevism (Socialist Appeal, Vol. 1 No. 7, 25 September 1937), paragraph: The Political “Sins” of Bolshevism as the Source of Stalinism.

2 Due to an ambiguity in the source, it is not completely clear whether “Marx’s theory” or “the workers” were transformed into “a force for the overthrow of Tsarism” by “the Bolshevik party”. We have chosen the latter option. [Editor’s note]

3 Original title: “De R.S.A.P. en de 4e Internationale”, in ‘De Enige Weg’ of April 13, 1938. [Editor’s note]

4 Published in 1938 in French with the title Au Pays du Grand Mensonge. An extract in English can be read with M.I.A.: In Stalin’s prisons.

5 P.I.C.: Persdienst van de Internationale Communisten (“Press Service of the International Communists”)

Source

First published in Radencommunisme, Marxistisch maandschrift voor zelfstandige klassebeweging’, [“Marxist monthly journal for autonomous class movement”] Vol.1 #1 (August 1938) & #2 (September 1938) by ‘Proletenstemmen’ and ‘Groep van Internationale Communisten’.

Translation from Dutch by H. Lueer, revision by H.Cinnamon, October 2021.

3 Comments on “GIC: Trotsky and Council Communism

  1. Pingback: Bolschewismus als Alternative zu selbstgewählte Ohnmacht? – Arbeiterstimmen

  2. Pingback: Bolshevism as an alternative to self-imposed powerlessness? | Left wing communism

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