a few thoughts on “What to do in times of weakness?”
In the revolutionary years after World War I, the Dutch council communists followed with interest the social, economic, and political developments in what was then the most unstable country in Europe, Germany. The council movements in both countries were closely linked through discussions and joint organizational work. Now Germany is the most stable country compared to other European countries, even if it remains not untouched by all developments. This apparent stability in Germany also applies to the Netherlands. Relative stability is obviously not conducive to the existence of revolutionary minoritarian organizations. In both the Netherlands and Germany, council communism is only a source of inspiration and has long ceased to be a living movement that can play a role in workers’ struggle based on current analyses. In the Dutch-speaking world, only a few communist-inspired people are still active, only on the Internet. In Germany, there are several websites of more or less organized groups with activities “In Real Life.” But apart from occasional actions, there is no effective participation in Germany’s workers’ struggle either. A recent discussion article 1) on the German blog Communaut blames council communism – in addition to Endnotes’ “communization” theory 2) – for the sad state of circles in Germany that call themselves social revolutionary or anti-authoritarian communist. The present misery is said to be due above all to the following principles of council communism:
- Confidence in the spontaneity of the workers’ masses;
- the need of the revolutionary minority to hibernate in theoretical circles in times of social peace;
- the crisis of capitalism is the trigger for a communist mass movement;
- the rejection of workers’ parties and trade unions as counterrevolutionary institutions.
In contrast, the article proposes building an “oppositional social base” within the “existing” and building a political organization with a program.
In general, I can agree with this critique and with the alternative formulated very vaguely above. But the elaboration of this solution that the article proposes, work in the trade unions, in “workers’ parties” and the creation of a mass party, seems to me a regression to Bolshevism 3). On the other hand, I will point out here some other basic principles of council communism – by the way, also those of Marx and Engels – and the possibilities of organizing a revolutionary minority that can contribute to the autonomous workers’ struggle.
What was called council communism in the 1930s to distinguish it from party communism was, in fact, an extremely diverse movement, in any case, broader in scope than the tendency of its name-giver, Otto Rühle. The critique of the party and the trade union movement was not limited to aspects of organizational structure but was essentially based on the experience of the social-democratic mass organizations’ choice of patriotism in World War I and on an understanding (whether correct or incorrect) of a change in the historical period of capitalism (imperialism, the death crisis). This critique resulted in three basic principles with regard to the party:
- communist consciousness develops on a mass scale in the working class only in the revolution, which is understood as a long process.
- the revolutionary party can exist only as a (significant) minority of conscious revolutionaries.
- this party cannot substitute itself for these masses, neither in the struggle before and during the seizure of power, nor after the conquest of power by the working masses.
I, therefore, present here a party position as it was held, among others, by the Berlin and Essen tendencies of the KAPD and in large parts of the ‘Unionen’ movement, by the Group of International Communists (Holland), by the “Rote Kämpfer,” by the Communist League ‘Spartacus’ in the Netherlands during and after the Second World War 4). It was also more or less clear to this pro-party current within council communism that a revolutionary party (or International) could not be founded arbitrarily, but only under pre-revolutionary circumstances, such as existed in Germany in 1918 under the influence of the imperialist war, or predicted in the Netherlands after World War II, or during a prolonged recession, as in Germany in the 1920s, or during the worldwide depression after the 1929 crash, each of which was expected to produce a revolutionary revival. That these expectations were unjustified in retrospect does not alter the correctness of the historical conditions for forming a revolutionary party or international. A peacefully developing and prospering capitalism cannot provide an entry point for revolution.
From the moment when almost all the currents that emerged from the KAPD call themselves “council communist,” we see, alongside Rühle’s coherent but one-sided and false rejection of the concept of the party, for example, a Pannekoek who is sometimes for and sometimes against “the party.” However, a better understanding of the contingency behind this volatile stance emerges when we realize that Pannekoek wrote these texts as a statement of his position in discussions within the council movement. In the 1930s, 1950s, and 1960s, Pannekoek (rightly) did not see a pre-revolutionary situation, while at the end of and shortly after World War Two, he certainly saw opportunities for a revolutionary revival and thus for the “new party.” The constant with Pannekoek – and even more clearly with the GIC (Holland) – is that the revolutionary minorities in all circumstances fulfill a propagandist function in the struggle against bourgeois ideology. They participate in open workers’ struggles without substituting themselves for the workers and in revolutionary revivals as the party or parties of the most conscious minority or minorities. The GIC (Holland) continued to participate in the workers’ struggle in the 1930s, even though this had declined, even though it recognized that counterrevolution had won. The road to a Second World War was open. It rejected purely “theoretical” activity while learning the lessons of the class struggle in Russia, Germany, and Spain.
- The views of the Bolsheviks were and are in contrast to those of the council communists. Lenin and Trotsky, as Bolsheviks, assumed that communist consciousness does not arise in the working class but among the “intellectuals.” The latter had to guide the unconscious class through the party, using appealing but sometimes downright misleading slogans like “All power to the councils.” Once in power, the councils were disempowered by the trade unions and subordinated to a state capitalist conception along reformist lines. To consolidate “soviet power” (read: the governing power of the Bolshevik Party), the Bolsheviks demanded that Communist parties affiliated with the Comintern outside Russia should influence their governments as mass parties to promote the interests of the Bolshevik state. Wherever possible, they should form “worker’s governments,” and fronts with the bourgeois left, adopting nationalist tones where appropriate. Trotsky’s “Fourth” International was founded at a time of decline in the revolutionary workers movements after World War One and united all the above “tactics” in a “transitional program” that would eventually restore him to the leadership of the Russian state. 5) The fact that this “transitional program” is rejected today by various tendencies within Trotskyism and also by the article in Communaut 6) does not prevent them from using the same tactics.
“What to do in times of weakness?” rightly states: :
“A revolutionary mass party cannot simply be voluntaristically pulled out of a hat in a flash. Our contribution is therefore not an immediate practical proposal, but aims to establish the need for such a party and to establish it as a strategic horizon of our current practice.”
It is noteworthy that the article proposes a mass party and does not advocate a party of the most conscious workers, i.e., a minority of the working class. It identifies this widespread conception of council communism with the
“conception of the early council communists, who advocated not the building of a mass party but the formation of workers’ councils as an alternative to these parties. According to this view, there was no need for a revolutionary party, but rather for a revolutionary class that had to create the appropriate organs of class power beyond the party – the councils.”
Here the article cites Ruehle’s anti-party view, which I oppose to the party tendency in the council movement that advocated a minority party like the KAPD. A party in the sense of the organized minority of the most conscious and militant workers, which, even if it is a significant minority, can have a real influence on the proletarian struggle and decision-making in the councils as part of the working class – not only through its social composition and presence in the workplaces (on which the Angry Workers group blindly focuses), but also and above all through its revolutionary program. However, without replacing this power of the councils with the power of the parties (e.g., by imposing a voting behavior on their members in the councils), with the power of the trade union movement, or with private or state capitalist management.
The possible danger of a revolutionary party becoming bureaucratic and its leaders ruling over its members is something that the proponents of the mass party want to counter with “democratic mechanisms.” This leaves open the question of how the less conscious or even unconscious masses who are members of this party will use them. It will be precisely the politically distinct factions of the party that use intra-party democracy to manipulate the members as voting cattle for their purposes. Against this kind of organizational measures, the Communist League’ Spartacus’ declared:
“This self-activity of the members, this general education, this conscious participation in the struggles of the workers make any creation of a party bureaucracy impossible. By organizational means, however, it would be impossible to find adequate measures in the absence of this self-activity and schooling on the part of the members”. (Tasks and Characteristics of the New party, 1945)
The same ineffectiveness applies to the democratization of the state, which “What to do …” wants to demand:
“political demands for democratization and communalization (…), the implementation of which would allow the wage-earning majority to actually exercise political power and prevent counterrevolutionary aspirations.”
What do we see here but a more modern formulation of Trotsky’s transitional program? Nor do these “democrats” explicitly rule out participation in elections, of course in the form of the “revolutionary parliamentarism” defended by the Comintern:
“Such a party would not be an electoral association loyal to the state, but would have to act in fundamental opposition to the ruling parties and would use the parliamentary circus – if at all – as a stage to make audible the fundamental critique of the bourgeois condition of society and to combine it with the struggle for concrete reforms.”
The proposed mass party is also to become the ruling governing party. The article does not even bother to hide this Leninist organ of power behind the fig leaf of “council democracy.” The party and its predecessors are portrayed in all sorts of formulations and increasingly as the instrument of power of the working class:
With their program, the Communists are “rallying points for resistance to capital.”
The communists strive for “hegemony” [according to the Duden German dictionary : “dominance, leading role, superiority, supremacy”]:
“If they [the Communists] want to achieve hegemony, they must, as an organized force, win the majority of wage-earners to a Communist program.”
For the article, the councils are significant as instruments in the hands of the party:
“Should a revolutionary movement with councils or similar organs of power of the class be formed, it depends on which political program – and that ultimately means: which party – prevails in the workers’ movement and thus in the councils and finally in society as a whole, and thus can hope for the active support of the masses.”
Yes, even if the masses (not even the working masses) come to an unspecified “socialist consciousness,” as the article says, it is the party and not the class itself that represents the interests of the working class and builds power:
“If spontaneous discontent over individual grievances, or even a diffuse unease with present society, is to develop into a socialist consciousness of the need for its overthrow, independent class organizations are needed to promote these educational processes on a broad front, to represent the interests of the class, and to build up a counter-power to the ruling reactionary forces” (bold by F.C.)
The article “What to do in times of weakness?” in Communaut does not touch, or hardly touches, on the primary question of class consciousness. I do so here because the concept of the origin of class consciousness is crucial for a party that wants to promote the autonomy of the working class. Even in their earliest writings, Marx and Engels pointed out that communism develops out of the working class and that class consciousness develops massively only in revolution:
(…) a class [the proletariat] (…) from which the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, emanates, which of course can also form among the other classes by the understanding of the position of this class.
(…) both for the mass production of this communist consciousness and for the enforcement of the cause itself, a mass change of people is necessary, which can only take place in a practical movement, in a revolution. (translated fromMarx/Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie, I Feuerbach. Bold by F.C.).
For a council-communist view consistent with this, I take inspiration from an excerpt from a response by Paul Mattick to the well-known text “Toward a New Workers’ Movement,” which the GIC (Holland) submitted to the international council movement for discussion. It also provides an opportunity to explain the “crisis of capitalism” that burdens contemporary social revolutionaries. Mattick accuses the GIC (Holland) of:
an “unsurpassed social-democratic conception of the development of human consciousness. Whereas social-democracy hoped for socialism through the development of social-democratic ideology, the Dutch also consider communist revolution and communism to be possible only when the workers have, to a decisive degree, more or less clearly “grasped” their tasks and possibilities. Here, too, consciousness conceived as ideology makes history. First, man thinks, then he understands, and then he acts. But this conception contradicts the actual historical events, and the nonsensical aspect shows again every day in the fact that the masses do not comprehend and, in the last instance, nevertheless act correctly. The revolution is not made conscious in the sense of consciousness as it is generally understood today. The many errors regarding the question: “History and class consciousness” result from the transference of the laws of the formation of consciousness of the individual to the class problem. (We will soon deal with this question in the most thorough manner). Class consciousness, however, is something different and is subject to different laws than the consciousness of the individual. By neglecting this difference, one has already deprived oneself of the possibility of coming closer to the problem’s solution. The mass of workers – no matter how far their class consciousness (as ideology) is developed – come into situations that force them to act. If they act first, the new situation thus created brings forth its consequences. Workers are forced, whether they like it or not, to take even more radical steps. Each of these steps forces the further pursuit of a conceptually unrecognized or poorly recognized goal. The struggle for mere existence forces the workers to revolutionary actions. These actions force dictatorship. Dictatorship forces the expansion of communism. Every single stage forces out of itself the next one, or the first stage already ends in defeat, which causes the death of the fighters. While the capitalist economy is ideologically determined by commodity fetishism and production and distribution are regulated by a social relation, progressive development of capitalism was possible despite it and precisely because of it. The same social relation in which the revolution has to take place excludes a conscious action of the working class, without therefore excluding the revolution. If capitalism develops and lives “blindly,” the revolution against capitalism can also only take place “blindly.” Another view is to break with historical materialism. And more, it turns against all historical facts. To count on a moment when the masses already know before the actions precisely what they have to do is nonsense. Their compulsive action creates only with success the possibility of the conceptual grasp of the new situation. The compulsion to action must be stronger than the capitalist ideological influence to make the latter ineffective. ” Source: Mattick, Differenzen in der Rätebewegung 7), bold by F.C.
Mattick accuses the GIC (Holland) here of a purely propagandistic function of the revolutionary minorities, following the example of the activity of Pannekoek and Gorter in social democracy before 1914. We must take up this accusation also now, not despite, but precisely because of the utterly correct statement in Communaut:
The revolutionary mass movements of the early 20th century would not have been possible at all without the preliminary organizational work of the social democratic parties. (Thesis 1.)
Whether Mattick’s reproach to the GIC (Holland) was justified or not is irrelevant at this point. What is important is that he states that class consciousness and class struggle coincide and that he distinguishes this conscious being from ideology. By ideology, Mattick means what is also called a worldview. The propagandistic task of communists lies at the level of worldview in the struggle against the constant stream of ideology representing bourgeois class interests. Propaganda should create room for the recognition of the interests of the working class against all other classes. This is consistent with a remark by Trotsky in his “History of the Russian Revolution” that the puzzling “spontaneity” of the February Revolution of 1917 was the result of … the anti-war propaganda of the Bolshevik Party.
This propagandist task – quite different from the retreat into “theory” – is also faced today, in the “time of weakness” by every self-conscious organization of revolutionaries. “Spontaneity” does not arise of its own accord from the crises of capitalism. Only when workers recognize their own interests as a class against other classes in the ever-changing and shifting phenomena of crisis the spontaneous struggle is possible. This presupposes that the conscious minorities, the present circles, and groups know what are the most urgent problems facing the proletarians around them – both employed and unemployed, brain workers as well as manual workers, regardless of education, type of labor contract or social benefits. The causes of each of these problems, as well as possible solutions, are the subject of all kinds of circulating opinions, picked up by traditional and “social” media, filtered for “popularity,” and selected by bourgeois political and trade union organizations according to bourgeois ideologies and the bourgeois interests behind them. Good communist propaganda makes these class interests visible and develops in general terms, or more concretely where feasible, possibilities for struggle, linking short-term perspectives to the long-term battle for workers’ power and communism.
The function of today’s groups is not “merely theoretical” or even “merely propagandistic.” Sporadically, open labor struggles occur. Just as the GIC (Holland) continued to participate in occasional workers’ struggles in the 1930s when these had declined overall, today’s groups can play an active role with their concrete positions, without putting themselves in the place of the workers. In addition to propagandistic tasks – to continue using Social Democratic and Bolshevik jargon – the groups also have agitational tasks. These include proposing slogans and demands that express what tends to broaden, generalize and deepen the struggle in the action of the working masses, depending on the concrete circumstances. In short, proposing slogans and demands that appeal to broader class sections, sending mass delegations to other sectors of the class, controlling one’s own struggles through mass discussions, and re-electing representatives for tasks that cannot be accomplished on a mass basis.
Except for the KAPD-Tendenz Essen, to which Herman Gorter belonged, the struggles and demands within capitalism, whether on the economic or political level, were not rejected by the historical council movement. Thus, the Unemployed Councils demanded higher state benefits and, to finance these benefits, pointed to the generous allocations of the Social Democratic government to the counterrevolutionary Reichswehr and the Freikorps. 8)
None of this has anything to do with a minimum reform program under capitalism as proposed in Communaut. In the tradition of the bourgeois left, the state is presented in the passage quoted above as a tool of workers’ struggle: “In addition to demands that mitigate economic competition within the working: inner class, this minimum program must above all contain political demands for democratization and communalization, the implementation of which would allow the wage-earning majority actually to exercise political power and prevent counterrevolutionary aspirations.” In reality, these leftist policies mainly bring jobs in parliaments, in the party or union bureaucracy, or the media. But within the working class, democratic and reformist illusions are reinforced.
No immediate results can be expected from propaganda and agitation. As Mattick pointed out, revolutionary development depends largely on the impetus that the capitalist crisis (and, I would add, the imperialist war) can give to a “spontaneous” development of workers struggles and proletarian consciousness. The mass of workers will not be revolutionary in crisis-free capitalism. Only when workers as a class exercise total power over society can communist consciousness develop on a large scale. Workers’ struggle is at best a long process of increasing and then disappearing organization in open struggles, and consequent growth of consciousness in the class that emerges in the subsequent struggle. The revolutionaries, as a minority, contribute to this with propaganda and agitation. This requires that instead of having false expectations about specific sectors of the class (e.g., the operaïst “mass worker,” or worse, the cross-class grouping of refugees or “yellow vests”) or specific “forms of struggle” (“sabotage,” “refusal to work”), the groups apply a long-term view to the development of capitalism and class struggle, to the emergence of historical openings for proletarian revolutionary development. Without cooperation and discussion between the current local groups, this long-term vision, this communist program, cannot emerge.
The periodic crises of capitalism, especially when they are global and protracted, can trigger a revolutionary struggle in which one step forces the next and beyond. The working masses usually learn only after the fact. This process is uneven, with smaller and larger minorities within the class developing different views on the course and progress of the struggle. But this process is not mechanical, and the capitalist crisis is no guarantee. Against the various theories, on the “Kladderadatsch” by the Center in the SPD, the insoluble sales problem in Rosa Luxemburg, a “death crisis of capitalism” in the KAPD, and the fall of the rate of profit in Grossmann/Mattick, Pannekoek argued that capitalism will always find a way out unless the proletarian revolution puts an end to it. 9) A wait-and-see attitude – as propagated by SPD leadership – which refuses propaganda and agitational tasks until the collapse of the German economy, means not recognizing that that views existing within the group are the product of the proletarian struggle and must again be part of it to advance the process. Not fulfilling this function means abandoning ever-larger sections of the working class in Germany, for whom crisis already exists. Ultimately, it also means the end of a group that is not up to its task.
But what about the existing trade unions and left parties? “What to do…” refers to these bourgeois organizations as “workers’ organizations” and accuses the council communists of not being active in these organizations. Historically, this is not correct. For example, Paul Mattick, the “Rote Kämpfer,” and Willy Huhn, nowadays, each in a different way, people inspired by council communism are especially active in educational and training programs of left-wing parties, youth organizations, and trade unions. Suppose strike assemblies and other actions are organized by bourgeois organizations. In that case, this is not in itself a reason for communists to stay away. However, this is different from the Bolshevik infiltration and takeover policy that Trotskyism has elevated to an art form. Council communists have also actively participated in radical and non-state unions, as Mattick did in the IWW in the United States, or even helped founding them, such as the “Arbeiterunion” of the 1920s in Germany and the “Eenheidsvakbond”, later “Eenheidsvakcentrale” 1945 in the Netherlands. The council movement has consistently recognized the value of a permanent organization of revolutionary-minded workers broader than the party. But it has always posed the question of the relationship between these unions, united in the AAUD, and the party (KAPD), which has been answered in different ways. Pannekoek expressed doubts about the formation of the AAUD from the beginning. He described as an important turning point the moment when a significant minority of the class separated itself from the organizations that presented themselves as representatives of the class, such as left bourgeois parties and trade unions (or industrial unions) that indulged in agreements with the entrepreneurs and labor peace in the interests of capital and the state. The formation of the AAUD was perhaps premature in this sense. 10)
In short, “What to do…” confronts the revolutionary milieu in Germany with the false choice between communization, anti-authoritarian Marxism and anti-party council communism on the one hand, and on the other, Bolshevik party politics which, as the realization of its secret’ maximum program,’ can only end in state capitalism. I hope to have shown that the party tendency within council communism can still be a source of inspiration for developing left communist activity through a supra-regional organization based on a program.
1 Katja Wagner, Lukas Egger, Marco Hamann, Was tun in Zeiten der Schwäche? October 16, 2021.
2 I want to leave “communization” as it is, an ideological mishmash to defend the interests of “intellectuals” who do not wish to have the same right to consumption as workers after the revolution. For an overview of this discussion in Germany: Some recent books on the period of transition. Significantly, the article “What to do …” concludes with a call to end the anti-Étatism of the social revolutionaries.
3 The text in Communaut contains hints that this is at least a Trotskyist-inspired approach. For example, it claims that council communism developed in the struggle against Stalinism. In contrast, it was a struggle against Bolshevism as a whole, advocated by Lenin and Trotsky in 1920, long before anyone mentioned Stalinism. The frequent use of terms such as bureaucracy, control, and democracy also points to Trotskyist influences. However, in this text, I will limit myself to arguments for and against “What to Do in Times of Weakness.” For a critical analysis of Trotskyism from the point of view of the Council Communists, I refer the reader to GIC, Trotsky and Council Communism.
4 See Communistenbond ‘Spartacus’ Taak en Wezen van de Nieuwe Partij (1945), Communists League ‘Spartacus’ Tasks and Characteristics of the New party (1945).
5 GIC, Trotsky and Council Communism.
6 The article in Communaut rejected the transitional program in words because it was not clear how the prospect of a socialist society could arise from capitalism’s inability to meet the transitional demands. However, the intention of Trotsky and earlier of the Comintern was that the transitional demands would help the Communists, later the Trotskyists, replace the “reformist” trade union and party leaders with themselves.
7 Mattick, Differenzen in der Rätebewegung – in Internationale Rätekorrespondenz : Theoretisches und Diskussionsorgan für die Rätebewegung. – Ausgabe. der Gruppe Internationaler Kommunisten, Holland. – 1936, Nr. 16-17 (Mai); source of the transcription: Rätekommunismus , 23. November 2020, collaboration of Association Archives Antonie Pannekoek.
8 See Franz Jung, Arbeitslos – Arbeiter-Los! (1919).
9 See, among others, Antonie Pannekoek, The Economic Necessity of Imperialism (1916) and there the recent discussions on the untenability of the theory of the decadence of capitalism of the ICC.
10 See A Letter from Comrade Pannekoek, July 1920, and further Roi Ferreiro On unionism and its revolutionary overcoming.