Council communism: political-economic transformation and initial revolutionary measures – Philippe Bourrinet

Council communism: political-economic transformation and initial revolutionary measures – Philippe Bourrinet

A brief introduction to the history and some important theoretical contributions of council communism, including a discussion of the Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, Pannekoek’s Workers Councils, and Paul Mattick’s views on the issue of labor-time accounting, and some comments on the continuing relevance of council communism.

Council Communism: Political-Economic Transformation and Initial Revolutionary Measures – Philippe Bourrinet


It is not our intention to once again recount the history of the movement that we studied in our doctoral thesis (1988), which is scheduled to be published in English this year. It is not the purpose of our contribution to once again delve into the archaeology of revolutionary politics. It would be a vain undertaking to attempt to clarify the vestiges of the past without a clear perspective on what is at stake, in which the economics of the emancipatory revolution will undoubtedly play a decisive role.

How can the study of this current respond to the numerous questions posed by a conference on the emancipation from labor? In particular, the question posed in the work of Éric Hazan and Kamo: “how to ensure that, on the day after the coming insurrection, the situation does not stagnate, and that the freedom that has been recovered expands instead of fatally receding”. Despite the “prevailing scepticism regarding the idea of revolution”, it should be pointed out that there is a perspective of freedom, not based on utopia, but on the real movement.

We believe that the workers councils are part of the real movement for the emancipation of humanity.

I. The movement and the purpose of the workers councils

Council communism refers to a theory and a kind of practice adopted and propagated by various revolutionary Marxist currents that broke with social democracy, and later with official communism, soon after the turn of the 20th century.

This current originated in the mass strike movements that arose in the first decade of the 20th century, especially in the first Russian revolution of 1905. Its first theoreticians were two women (this must be emphasized): Henriette Roland-Holst in the Netherlands and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany (“Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions”, 1905). And a socialist astronomer, Anton Pannekoek, in a controversial work, “Tactical Differences in the Workers Movement” (1909).

These mass strikes were intrinsically political. They had nothing in common with the general strike, which was a trade union affair, advocated by the anarchosyndicalists and the revolutionary syndicalists. The mass strikes posed the question of power, of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and therefore of the destruction of the class state, as the leading theoretician of council communism, Anton Pannekoek, had already claimed at the time. Lenin would recall this in his book, The State and Revolution (1917), in which he frequently quotes Pannekoek.

These mass strike movements culminated in the movement of the workers councils (“soviets”) that were created in Russia in 1905 and in 1917, in Germany during the revolution of 1918-1919, in Italy with the experience of the Turin factory councils (1919-1920), in Hungary between 1918 and 1919, and again in October 1956.

For council communism, the workers councils are not institutions for engaging in trade union-type activity: they are the political form of direct democracy that unites all the proletarians, workers and non-exploiting layers of the population, when the question of power is posed. The transformation of these councils into merely administrative institutions (institutions of production or of co-management with the state), as in Russia in 1918, or their political elimination in favor of a “national” Constituent Assembly (as in Germany in 1919), signals their disappearance.

For council communism, the councils can only be “proletarian”. They represent the majority, even though they are often composed of a minority of active elements of the masses among the factory workers. It is true that in November 1918 in Hungary there were councils of policemen and of students, of government employees and engineers, of housewives, etc. These comprise a historical curiosity, however, or, according to one witness, they were only “the honest bourgeois left without a council, not knowing what saint he should turn to for help”.

It is the factory councils in particular that must conduct the revolution and take power in the name of all of society.

Council communism is opposed to all “party communism”, especially “Leninism” (and its “state capitalist” derivatives), according to which the councils are necessarily subject to the sole authority of the communist party, which must seize state power and “construct” socialist society, and later, communist society, by substituting itself for the will of the masses, over the course of an endless “transition period”.

Adopting the goal of constructing a free and egalitarian society, without classes and without an exploiting state, council communism holds that state capitalism perpetuates the power of global capital in the framework of a state that, under the aegis of a bureaucracy or a caste of officials or of “specialists”, performs the function of the “ideal capitalist” (Engels, Anti-Dühring) whose job is to assure the primitive accumulation of capital within a closed national framework. This “national socialism” therefore does not represent historical progress, and can be considered to be a form of “bourgeois revolution” in a backward geographical region (Bordiga) or as a “bureaucratically degenerated” workers state (Trotsky), crystallizing in alleged “proletarian conquests” obtained by means of a one-party dictatorship.

It is this rejection of any national framework, rendered meaningless in the rapid advance of globalization, that best characterizes council communism. Council communism does not acknowledge the reality of nations as anything but a temporary historical fact in the context of the rise of a world society. The seizure of power by the workers councils makes no sense in the framework of the nation (“socialism in one country”), and cannot put down roots except by simultaneously embracing a group of countries, undermining the foundations of any ideological defense of a “socialist fatherland”.

Because they are constructed on a territorial basis, they cannot have a purely national existence. The institutionalization of a federation of socialist council states is therefore excluded. The power of the workers councils in different countries, in one continent and then in others, can only be based on the free and equal association of territorial or regional workers councils, based on productive foundations, thus breaking with any national or nationalist frameworks. The federation of “territorial Communes” leads to the establishment of a world Commune-State. In his pamphlet on “The [Becoming of the] New Society” (July 1920), Karl Schröder, a leader of the KAPD, asserted that this world commune will not be a “federation of national soviet republics”, as Lenin proclaimed in January 1918 and as was later set forth in the Constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic on July 10, 1918. This commune, extended to the entire world, will associate the workers councils of the world that were created on a territorial basis of productive units, rather than on a national federative basis.

II. A “new workers movement”: a change of tactics, the question of immediate objectives

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in December 1918, on the occasion of the KPD Congress: “For us there is no minimal and no maximal program; socialism is one and the same thing: this is the minimum we have to realize today…. the realization of socialism as the immediate task which guides every measure and every position that we take.”

German and Dutch council communism (Räte-Kommunismus), which emerged in 1918-1919, considered that the first world war had demonstrated the vacuity of the old workers movement, organized in the trade unions and in parliaments. The old movement was based on progressive and partial conquests as well as on the search for alliances with the “progressive fractions” of the ruling class, within the overall framework of an intention to seize power gradually and legally. Having concluded that traditional capitalism had entered a stage of “death crisis” (Todeskrise), council communism consequently deemed that any new workers movement must, as a rule:

• Reject the official trade union form, which is viewed as the expression of a utopian reformism, whose sole function is to regiment labor power in the legalistic framework of a tripartite management, divided among the state, the employers and the “legal representatives” of labor. According to council communism, the new forms of organization that will replace the old trade unions will be the “Workers Unions”—institutions of political and economic struggle—emerging from the revolutionary struggle, and action committees and committees of the unemployed, which are spontaneously born from the needs of the class struggle. The council communists were militants who were actively involved in such committees in the United States as well as Germany.

• Reject the parliamentary framework and any involvement in “electoral tactics”. Council communism maintains that in critical pre-revolutionary periods, participation in elections is a fatal trap. Thus, the acceptance of the Constituent Assembly in Germany in January 1919 was an act of total political suicide. Rather than a revolutionary tribune, the parliament is transformed into an electoral circus, after the image of the Busch Circus in Berlin, a circus where the councils legally annulled themselves and handed over all power to the Constituent Assembly. The only valid elections are those that take place among the rank and file of the workers councils, during the periodic selection (or deposition) of their delegates.

• Reject all support, even tactical support, for “national liberation” movements, because the national idea is opposed to the struggle for the conquest of power by the proletariat (workers, employees and poor farmers), the only class that is the bearer of historical progress.

• Combat all ideologies that divert the proletariat from the supreme goal, the irreversible suppression of the capitalist system, regardless of the particular form assumed by that system—liberal, fascist terrorist or state capitalist, or any version of Stalinism. Council communism, like Hazan and Kamo, considers that anti-fascism was a reinvigorating bait for fascism “by giving the impression that it supported the existing democratic order”.

III. The initial measures of the revolution: domination of politics by the economy and the suppression of exploitation.

This rejection of all the old tactics did not have any meaning outside of the process of the formation of a new society of freedom, a process that must be irreversible in order to be real; but also a society where the perspective is reversed: it is not the politics of the traditional societies that will dominate the economy, but rather the economy in the hands of the producers and consumers that will subject politics, the politics of the state, in order to more effectively assure its extinction as a class institution.

These measures are set forth in two fundamental texts: the Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution (Berlin, 1930; Amsterdam, 1950); and Pannekoek’s Workers Councils (1941-1947).

In the first text, written by a working class leader of the KAPD, Jan Appel, a delegate at the Third Congress of the Communist International, the question of socialization or communization was posed on an economic plane: “What the workers have to manage is the rule of the economy over politics”.

In this context, “economy” must be defined as the association of free and equal producers at their workplaces, without regard to any state administrative decrees or party domination. The major problem was that of an egalitarian distribution of consumption determined not by a centralized state bureau but by the rank and file workers organized in enterprise councils. This involves the calculation of the average social time of production for each product in order to equitably determine an equal distribution of social consumption reserves for each producer-consumer. Thanks to this social accounting, the law of value will be eliminated: products will be demonetized and will circulate exclusively on the basis of their social use value. This social accounting process elaborated by the rank and file workers will allow the new society to avoid the danger of the rapid formation of a parasitic bureaucracy.

In fact, what this involves is the creation of a new relation of the producer to his product, a relation that is reminiscent of a libertarian concept that was theoretically elaborated in 1921 by Sebastian Faure (My Communism).

This view was considered to be simplistic by the leading theoreticians of council communism, Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick. Pannekoek, in his book, Workers Councils, said that it is necessary not to lose sight of the fact that for a certain (indeterminate) period “the first problem is to build up the production apparatus” ruined by both economic crises and by wars. He then said: “It is quite possible that the habit, imposed by war and famine, of having the indispensable foodstuffs distributed without distinction is simply continued.… the new moral principles of common labor are only gradually forming.” As opposed to Guy Debord’s famous slogan, “Never work!”, Pannekoek proclaimed the watchword of an egalitarian ethic of the just distribution of consumer goods. He embraced “the old popular saying”—which in fact comes from Saint Paul’s “Letter to the Thessalonians”—“whoever does not work shall not eat”. However, the new form of consumption cannot be reduced to a quantitative equalization of autonomous (self-managed) cooperators: “A considerable part of the work must be spent on the common property, on the perfection and enlargement of the productive apparatus.” It will therefore be necessary to devote “part of the total time and labor of society” to “non-productive, though necessary activities, on general administration, on education, on medical service”.

Paul Mattick addressed this problem in the 1950s. Despite the experience of the great crisis of 1929, with which the current crisis has been compared, there can be no question of forming labor armies, whether for social purposes or for the general interest. The calculation of the contribution of each person to the productive process would serve no purpose, because “under the conditions of a communist economy an abundance of means of consumption can be produced that renders a calculation of individual shares superfluous”.

Mattick’s second criticism consists in the fact that communist distribution cannot be based on the old world of the small workshops or Fordism. First of all, “the productivity of labor has reached such a level that the workers who are effectively employed in production constitute a minority of the entire working class, while the workers employed in circulation or in other sectors comprise the majority.”

Secondly, labor has attained such a new quality on a universal scale, that it is unthinkable to separate manual from intellectual labor. The combination of science and production makes it impossible to draw a distinct line of demarcation between simple labor and complex labor. Paul Mattick emphasizes that “the universities can to some extent be considered to be ‘factories’, because the productive forces of science tend to replace those linked to direct labor”.

Thirdly, the world crisis standardizes the preconditions for a communist form of distribution: “the pauperization linked to the crisis strikes all workers”, including those who (even though they are no longer involved in direct production) “are not therefore any less a part of the working class”.

Mattick is particularly insistent on the fact that there can be no question of self-managing or “equally sharing” a social misery exacerbated by the misery of inhuman labor. In fact, he evoked Marx’s idea that the only philosophy of labor must be its abolition: “‘Labour’ by its very nature is unfree, unhuman, unsocial activity, determined by private property and creating private property. Hence the abolition of private property will become a reality only when it is conceived as the abolition of ‘labour’.” (Karl Marx, “Draft of an Article on Friedrich List’s book: Das Nationale System der Politischen Oekonomie”, 1845).

Note the quotation marks used by Marx. For him, labor gives way to free activity, in which “the realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases….”

For Mattick, the only good principle was thus not of a quantitative, but a qualitative order: the “economic principle of the working class is nothing but the suppression of exploitation”, since “labor” is a torture, an ordeal, whether subject to private or state capital.

This is the reason why the demand for a precise “accounting” of average social labor for consumption cannot be satisfactory. On the one hand, because of the “constant variations of average social labor”, and on the other because it is a question of continually “adapting production and distribution to the needs of society”. This society is a world society, characterized by vast differences in living standards that have to be addressed, before we can have any kind of equity in distribution.

Conclusion: What relevance does council communism have today?

By attributing to the workers councils the finally discovered form of the domination of politics by the economy, and therefore of the dissolution of the state of capital, council communism provides some clues relevant to the search for concrete solutions for contemporary problems: massive unemployment and the periodic destruction of labor power.

How can the hope for a rapid and irreversible transformation of society that proceeds from the local to the world scale be reborn? And this despite the evidence that capital, by becoming more autonomous, is very rapidly destroying not only the very conditions of its own perpetuation by means of the programmed destruction of natural resources, but is also destroying the productive forces themselves (massive unemployment)?

As Hazan and Kamo observe, one cannot dream of an irreversible emancipation of the human species by resigning oneself to “confirming the collapse of the present social edifice”. We need to make it collapse as soon as possible, rather than allow capital to offer humanity an endless horror or an abrupt end to the horror.

Will the workers councils indeed prove to be the finally discovered form for the organization of society? This “coming insurrection” (with quotation marks) (a very debatable term [Jaime Semprún]) predicted by “anonymous”; will it be “anti-political”, in the sense that there will no longer be any “vanguard”, but only “agents of liaison, working to spread the word and to circulate the revolutionary news”, spokespersons, according to Hazan and Kamo, of a whole generation repeatedly burned by “party-builders”? Or, to the contrary, as Pannekoek wrote, will it involve working groups and action groups or “parties” whose mission is to elaborate the “spiritual power” without which any form of organization such as the workers councils would be a hollow shell?

Human emancipation by means of institutions uniting the “multitudes” (Toni Negri and Michael Hardt) is certainly posed hic et nunc, and not in the distant mists of a future utopia. In the highly perfected globalization of our time, stock market transactions are conducted in nanoseconds; we are a long way from the Braudelian “long period”, inserted into the short term, in which emancipation can arise as a concrete question that must be resolved now (“C’est maintenant…”). But it would be risky to claim that “the idea of the transitional society is obsolete and reactionary” (Bruno Astarian, 2010), or, in other words, that the irreversible processes of transformation towards global social emancipation will take place in the short term.

Philippe Bourrinet
February 20, 2014

Source materials for critical reflection (in order of publication in French, or of republication in English or German)

Sebastian Faure, Mon Communisme: Le bonheur universel, Imprimerie La Fraternelle, Paris, 1921.

Rosa Luxemburg, “Discours au Congrès de fondation du KPD (Spartakusbund)”, Berlin, December 31, 1918, in Écrits politiques 1917-1918, Maspero, Paris, 1969. [For an English translation, see: “Our Program and the Political Situation” (December 31, 1918), online at:]

Anton Pannekoek, “Les divergences tactiques au sein du mouvement ouvrier” (1909), in S. Bricianer (ed.), Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, EDI, Paris, 1969. [In English: “Tactical Differences within the Workers Movement”, in Serge Bricianer, ed., Pannekoek and the Workers’ Councils, Telos Press, St. Louis, 1978, pp. 73-117.]

Paul Mattick, “Préface aux principes fondamentaux de la production et de la distribution communistes” (1970), in Fondements de l’économie communiste, I.C.O., No. 101, February 1, 1971. [In English:]

Roland Bardy, 1919. La Commune de Budapest, La tête de Feuilles, Paris, 1973.

Anton Pannekoek, Les Conseils ouvriers (1941-47), Bélibaste, Paris, 1974. [In English: Workers’ Councils, 4 Vols., Echanges et Mouvement, London, n.d.; available online at:]

Karl Marx, “Critique de l’économie nationale. Sur le livre de Friedrich List ‘Le Système national de l’économie politique'” (1845), Paris, EDI, 1975. [In English:]

Un monde sans argent: le communisme, Amis de 4 millions de jeunes travailleurs, 3 Vols., 1976. [The first two volumes of this text are available online in English translation at the “Libcom” website under the title, A World Without Money: Communism: (Volume 1) and; (Volume 2).]

Paul Mattick, “Y a-t-il un autre mouvement ouvrier?” (1975), in Le marxisme hier, aujord’hui et demain, Spartacus, Paris, 1983.

Gruppe internationaler Kommunisten, Prinzipien kommunistischer Produktion und Verteilung, GIK-AAUD, Berlin, 1930. This text has been translated into English by the Movement for Workers Councils, London, 1990. [English translation available online under the title, Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, at:]

Jaime Semprun and René Riesel, Catastrophisme, administration du désastre et soumission durable, Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances, 2008. [An English translation of this book is available online under the title, Catastrophism, Disaster Management and Sustainable Submission, at:]

Moishe Postone, Temps, travail et domination sociale (1993), Les mille et une nuits, Paris, 2009. [In English: Time, Labor and Social Domination, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.]

Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, L’Idée de communisme, Nouvelle Éditions Lignes, 2010.

Bruno Astarian, Activité de crise et communisation, Senovero, Marseille, 2010. [In English translation:]

Groupe Krisis, Manifeste contre le travail (1993), Osez la République sociale!, Gaël, 2012. [In English:]

Karl Schröder, Vom Werden der neuen Gesellschaft (The old and the new organizational forms), KAPD, 1920. Reprinted in 2013.

Claude Bitot, Repenser la révolution, Spartacus, Paris, 2013.

Éric Hazan and Kamo, Première mesures révolutionnaires, La fabrique, 2013.

Philippe Bourrinet, The Dutch and German Communist Left, Brill, Leiden, 2014.


Translated in August 2014 from the Spanish translation available online at: