Red and Black Notes review of the history of the Dutch and German communist left.
The following review contains differences from the version that appeared in Red & Black Notes #16-17. The reviewer added some minor changes too late to be included in the published version, so they have been included here. It should also be noted that the book is the subject of some controversy, as the author Phillipe Bourrinet, who wrote the book while he was a member of the International Communist Current , regards the book as a "pirate" edition. Bourrinet's own edition will appear next year. Bourrinet can be contacted through the Left-Wing Communism site. (note from the original)
There is no doubt that Phillipe Bourrinet undertook a difficult task, when he wrote a book on a topic, which has been mostly omitted by mainstream historiography and even distorted and concealed by the Stalinist historians of the workers' movement. Despite this, he showed amazing effort when putting up this extensive work, which leans heavily on primary sources of information. In fact, the book represents an outstanding combination of revolutionary spirit and academic accurateness.
Bourrinet begins his writing by discussing Marxism in Holland in the second half of 19th century. From this country, a specific tendency appeared which crossed paths with the strong German social-democratic movement. No later than the first decade of the 20th century, embodied by the personalities of Dutch Anton Pannekoek and Polish Rosa Luxembourg, even though both were at the time living in Germany, this tendency was constituted in the course of polemics on the mass strike against Karl Kautsky. Significant for this tendency were trust in the self-emancipatory capabilities of proletariat, endorsement of extra-parliamentary tactics and emphasis on the role of class consciousness, which especially Pannekoek interpreted through the lenses of Joseph Dietzgen's ideas.
This tradition had laid the basis for what was to be called left communism later. Its partisans proved revolutionary coherence in test of the WWI. After the Bolsheviks led the October revolution in Russia they were undeniable a resounding force amongst the working masses (especially in Germany), standing independently of Bolshevik current. As such, they were soon excluded (or it might be as well said, that they left) from the Third International, when it became an instrument of promoting the interests of the Russian state rather than the proletarian movement.
After this, the author pays his attention mostly to the development of KAPD, a party, which regrouped many communist workers in Germany, where the revolutionary wave retreated through 1923. One of the interesting moments of its history was the formation of Communist Workers' International, a rather voluntary project backed up by Dutch Hermann Gorter. Bourrinet then continues to examine the German Unionen movement, which was in some part influenced by Otto Rühle's anti-organizational ideas.
In 1927, the Group of International Communists was formed in Holland, marking clearly the final crystallization of the council communist tendency, which based itself on the experiences of working class self-organization in the workers' councils, most notable during Russian and German revolution. Bourrinet traces its history, its relationship with KAPD and the problems it had to face in 1930's, when Nazism triumphed in Germany, and Franco succeeded in Spain. The influence of council communism declined in reciprocal proportion to the victory of counter-revolutionary forces.
Groups of council communist, scattered across Europe, and grouped around Paul Mattick in the USA, experienced the final blow with the outbreak of WWII, and remained merely as isolated little groups. Only in Holland did some Trotskyist organizations evolve towards council communism and during the war gave birth to The Communistenbond Spartacus, which in Europe carried council communist ideas into the post-war period. These ideas played a considerable role in the ultra-left milieu, especially in the time of 1968 revolts, but Bourrinet does not go as far as that and only briefly outlines the echo of council communism in the second half of 20th century.
This compelling story is not easy reading though, and one should not expect it to be simple propaganda piece. Actually, Phillipe Bourrinet focuses more on the development of ideas, concepts and theories rather than on train of events. And he chooses such issues, which are still crucial for any revolutionary current - issues of the struggle for economic demands, intervention, the national question, organization, etc., which helps him to clearly situate the Dutch and German communist left within the framework of revolutionary movement.
Such approach seems to be very helpful, however, Bourrinet sometimes ends up "analyzing analyses" and his own view tends to preponderate over the subject matter, so that the "history" turns into plain theoretical reflection. Such a thing, of course, is not bad by itself, even though the lack of space left to reader for her own interpretation might be a bit dismal. Still the author is fair to his readers and his value judgments are easily distinguishable from the rest of the text. He openly admits in the postface, that by no means did he try to reserve himself from evaluating the examined issues.
Throughout the book there are some evident tendencies of the author, with which I would have some methodological disagreements. So, for example, Bourrinet strictly draws a line between what he calls "the Dutch and German communist left" and on the other hand what he calls "council communism" or with more negative connotation "councilism". Such distinction, however, seems to me to be way too made-up. Often, Bourrinet reproaches council communism for throwing overboard the experience of the Russian proletariat. True, council communists analyzed Russian revolution as bourgeois in nature, but I am not aware that they would also refuse the struggle of Russian workers en bloc; they only remained very cautious about universality of these experiences and remained aware of their narrow limits, especially the experience of the Russian Factory Committees which served as important inspiration for council communist theory, and also the history of the German Räte.
Nevertheless, it is upon everyone to judge for themselves, because the book is definitely worth reading. With the devotion put in writing it, Philippe Bourrinet's work indeed represents a "contribution" to the history of the workers' movement.
The book has already its own history. In English, it can be obtained through the ICC for $21. The author himself distributes a French version, and an English version will be published in 2002-2003 by Brill in the Netherlands, with some additional texts, which better reflect the author's current views.
Kurt Weisskopf / July 2002
First Published in Red and Black Notes #16/17, Spring 2003, this article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.