Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries - Maximilien Rubel, John Crump (editors)

In the nineteenth century, socialists as different as Marx and Kropotkin were agreed that socialism means a marketless, moneyless, wageless, classless, stateless world society. Subsequently this vision of non-market socialism has been developed by currents such as the anarcho-communists, impossibilists, council communists, Bordigists and Situationists. By tracing this development, this book challenges the assumptions of both supporters and opponents of what is conventionally regarded as socialism.

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Notes on the Contributors
1. Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth Century - Maximilien Rubel
2. The Thin Red Line: Non-Market Socialism in the Twentieth Century - John Crump
3. Anarcho-Communism - Alain Pengam
4. Impossibilism - Stephen Coleman
5. Council Communism - Mark Shipway
6. Bordigism - Adam Buick
7. Situationism - Mark Shipway
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Submitted by Craftwork on March 27, 2017

A w0rk in progress.


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A number of John Crump's Socialist Standard articles from his time when he was a member of the SPGB can be found at the following link:

Link: John Crump


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Anarchist-communism has been regarded by other anarchist currents as a poor and despised relation, an ideological trophy to be exhibited according to the needs of hagiography or polemic before moving on to "serious things" (the collectivizations of Spain, anarcho-syndicalism, federalism or self-management), and as an "infantile utopia" more concerned with dogmatic abstractions than with "economic realities". Yet, anarchist communism has been the only current within the anarchist movement which has explicitly aimed not only at ending exchange value but, among it's most coherent partisans, at making this the immediate content of the revolutionary process. We are speaking here, of course, only of the current which explicitly described itself as "anarchist-communist", whereas in fact the tendency in the nineteenth century to draw up a stateless communism "utopia" extended beyond anarchism properly so-called.

Anarchist-communism must be distinguished from collectivism, which was both a diffuse movement (see, for example, the different components of the International Working Men's Association, the Guesdists, and so on) and a specific and a specific anarchist current. As far as the latter was concerned, it was Proudhon who supplied its its theoretical features: an open opponent of communism (which, for him, was Etienne Cabet's "communism"), he favored instead a society in which exchange value would flourish - a society in which workers would be directly and mutually linked to each other by money and the market. The Proudhonist collectivists of the 1860's and 1870's (of whom Bakunin was one), who were resolute partisans of the collective ownership of the instruments of work and, unlike Proudhon, of land, maintained an essence of this commercial structure in the form of groups of producers, organized either on a territorial basis (communes) or on an enterprise basis (cooperatives, craft groupings) and linked to each other by the circulation of value. Collectivism was thus defined - and still is - as an exchange economy where the legal ownership of the instruments of production is held by a network of "collectivities" which are sorts of workers' jointstock companies. Most contemporary anarchists (standing, as they do, for a self-managed exchange economy) are collectivists in this nineteenth-century sense of the term, even though the term has now come to have a somewhat different meaning (state ownership, i.e. "state capitalism", rather than ownership by any collectivity).

In the 1870's and the 1880's the anarchist-communists, who wanted to abolish exchange value in all it's forms, broke with the collectivists, and in so doing revived the tradition of radical communism which had existed in France in the 1840's.


In 1843, under the Rabelaisian motto "Do what you will!", and in opposition to Etienne Cabet, Théodore Dézamy's Code de la Communauté laid the basis for the principles developed later in the nineteenth century by communist and anarchist-communist theoreticians such as Joseph Déjacque, Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels, William Morris and Peter Kropotkin. These principles involved the abolition of money and commercial exchange; the subordination of the economy to the satisfaction of the needs of the whole population; the abolition of the division of labor (including the division between the town and country and between the capital and the provinces); the progressive introduction of attractive work; and the progressive abolition of the state and of the functions of government, as a separate domain of society, following the communization of social relations, which was to be brought about by a revolutionary government. It should be noted that Dézamy advocated the 'community of goods' and resolutely opposed the specifically collectivist slogan of 'socialization of property.' In doing so, he anticipated the critical analysis of property which Amadeo Bordiga made more than a century later (see Chapter 6).

Besides rejecting Cabet's utopia, because it maintained the division of labor - in particular that between town and country - and sought to organize it rigidly in the name of economic 'efficiency,' Dézamy also refused to insert between the capitalist mode of production and communist society a transitional period of democracy which would have pushed communism into the background. By seeking to establish a direct link between the revolutionary process and the content of communism, so that the dominant class within capitalism would be economically and socially expropriated through the immediate abolition of monetary circulation, Dézamy anticipated what was to be the source of the basic originality of anarchist-communism, in particular in its Kropotkinist form. This feature was the rejection of any 'transition period' that did not encompass the essence of communism: the end of the basic act of buying and selling.

At about the same time, the communists around the journal L'Humanitaire, organe de la science sociale (of which two issues appeared in Paris in 1841) advocated a program of action very close to that of Dézamy, proposing, among other things, the abolition of marriage. In addition, they made travel one of the principal characteristics of communist society, because it would bring about mixing of the races and interchange between industrial and agricultural activities. This group also identified itself with the Babouvist Sylvain Maréchal for having proclaimed 'anti-political and anarchist ideas'. However, it was above all the house-painter Joseph Déjacque (1822-64) who, up until the foundation of anarchist communism properly so-called, expressed in a coherent way the radical communism which emerged in France from the 1840s as a critical appropriation of Fourierism, Owenism and neo-Babouvism.

Déjacque's work was an examination of the limits of the 1848 revolution and the reasons for its failure. It was developed around a rejection of two things: the state, even if 'revolutionary,' and collectivism of the Proudhonist type. Déjacque reformulated communism in a way that sought to be resolutely free from the dogmatism, sectarianism and statism exhibited by those such as Cabet and La Fraternité de 1845. Déjacque spoke of: "Liberty! Which has been so misused against the community and which it is true to say that certain communist schools have held cheap.'

Déjacque was a fierce opponent of all the political gangs of the period. He rejected Blanquism, which was based on a division between the 'disciples of the great people's Architect' and 'the people, or vulgar herd,' and was equally opposed to all the variants of social republicanism, to the dictatorship of one man and to 'the dictatorship of the little prodigies of the proletariat.' With regard to the last of these, he wrote that: 'a dictatorial committee composed of workers is certainly the most conceited and incompetent, and hence the most anti-revolutionary, thing that can be found...(It is better to have doubtful enemies in power than dubious friends)'. He saw 'anarchic initiative,' 'reasoned will' and 'the autonomy of each' as the conditions for the social revolution of the proletariat, the first expression of which had been the barricades of June 1848. In Déjacque's view, a government resulting from an insurrection remains a reactionary fetter on the free initiative of the proletariat. Or rather, such free initiative can only arise and develop by the masses ridding themselves of the 'authoritarian prejudices' by means of which the state reproduces itself in its primary function of representation and delegation. Déjacque wrote that: 'By government I understand all delegation, all power outside the people,' for which must be substituted, in a process whereby politics is transcended, the 'people in direct possession of their sovereignty,' or the 'organized commune.' For Déjacque, the communist anarchist utopia would fulfil the function of inciting each proletarian to explore his or her own human potentialities, in addition to correcting the ignorance of the proletarians concerning 'social science.'

However, these views on the function of the state, both in the insurrectionary period and as a mode of domination of man by man, can only be fully understood when inserted into Déjacque's global criticism of all aspects of civilization (in the Fourierist sense of the term). For him, 'government, religion, property, family, all are linked, all coincide.' The content of the social revolution was thus to be the abolition of all governments, of all religions, and of the family based on marriage, the authority of the parents and the husband, and inheritance. Also to be abolished were 'personal property, property in land, buildings, workshops, shops, property in anything that is an instrument of work, production or consumption.' Déjacque's proposed abolition of property has to be understood as an attack on what is at the heart of civilization: politics and exchange value, whose cell (in both senses) is the contract. The abolition of the state, that is to say of the political contract guaranteed by the government (legality), for which anarchy is substituted, is linked indissolubly with the abolition of commerce, that is to say of the commercial contract, which is replaced by the community of goods: 'Commerce,...this scourge of the 19th century, has disappeared amongst humanity. There are no longer either sellers or sold.'

Déjacque's general definition of the 'anarchic community' was:

"the state of affairs where each would be free to produce and consume at will and according to their fantasy, without having to exercise or submit to any control whatsoever over anything whatever; where the balance between production and consumption would establish itself, no longer by preventive and arbitrary detention at the hands of some group or other, but by the free circulation of the faculties and needs of each."

Such a definition implies a criticism of Proudhonsim, that is to say of the Proudhonist version of Ricardian socialism, centered on the reward of labor power and the problem of exchange value. In his polemic with Proudhon on women's emancipation, Déjacque urged Proudhon to push on 'as far as the abolition of the contract, the abolition not only of the sword and of capital, but of property and authority in all their forms,' and refuted the commercial and wages logic of the demand for a 'fair reward' for 'labor' (labor power). Déjacque asked: 'Am I thus.. right to want, as with the system of contracts, to measure out to each - according to their accidental capacity to produce - what they are entitled to?' The answer given by Déjacque to this question is unambiguous: 'it is not the product of his or her labor that the worker has a right to, but to the satisfaction of his or her needs, whatever may be their nature.'

The 'direct exchange' theorized by Proudhon corresponded to supposed 'abolition' of the wages system which in fact would have turned groups of producers or individual producers into the legal agents of capital accumulation. For Déjacque, on the other hand, the communal state of affairs - the phalanstery 'without any hierarchy, without any authority' except that of the 'statistics book' - corresponded to 'natural exchange,' i.e. to the 'unlimited freedom of all production and consumption; the abolition of any sign of agricultural, individual, artistic or scientific property; the destruction of any individual holding of the products of work; the demonarchization and the demonetarization of manual and intellectual capital as well as capital in instruments, commerce and buildings.

The abolition of exchange value depends on the answer given to the central question of 'the organization of work' or, in other words, on the way in which those who produce are related to their activity and to the products of that activity. We have already seen that the answer Déjacque gave to the question of the distribution of products was the community of goods. But the community had first of all to be established in the sphere of productive activities themselves. Although the disappearance of all intermediaries (parasites) would allow an increase in production, and by this means would guarantee the satisfaction of needs, the essential requirement was the emancipation of the individual producer from 'enslaving subordination to the division of labor' (Marx) and, primarily, from forced labor. This is why the transformation of work into 'attractive work' was seen by Déjacque as the condition for the existence of the community: 'The organization of attractive work by series would have replaced Malthusian competition and repulsive work.' This organization was not to be something exterior to productive activity. Déjacque's communist anthropology was based on the liberation of needs, including the need to act on the world and nature, and made no distinction between natural-technical necessities and human ends. Although its vocabulary was borrowed from Fourier (harmony, passions, series and so on), it aimed at the community of activities more than the organized deployment of labor power: 'The different series of workers are recruited on a voluntary basis like the men on a barricade, and are completely free to stay there as long as they want or to move on to another series or barricade.' Déjacque's 'Humanisphere' was to have no hours of work nor obligatory groupings. Work could be done in isolation or otherwise.

As to the division of labor, Déjacque proposed its abolition in a very original way. What he advocated was a reciprocal process of the integration of the aristocracy (or rather of the aristocratic intelligentsia) and the proletariat, each going beyond its own unilateral intellectual or manual development.

Although he recognized the futility of palliatives, Déjacque was perhaps exasperated by the gulf between the results of his utopian research and the content of the class struggle in the 1850s, and tried to bridge this gulf with a theory of transition. This theory aimed to facilitate the achievement of the state of community, while taking into account the existing situation. Its three bases were, first, 'direct legislation by the people' ('the most democratic form of government, while awaiting its complete abolition'); second, a range of economic measure which included 'direct exchange' (even though Déjacque admitted that his democratized property without abolishing exploitation), the establishment of Owenite-type 'labor bazaars,' 'circulation vouchers' (labor vouchers) and a gradual attack on property; and third, a democratization of administrative functions (revocability of public officials, who would be paid on the basis of the average price of a day's work) and the abolition of the police and the army.

It is an undeniable fact that this programme anticipated that of the Paris Commune of 1871, at least on certain points. But this is the weak side of Déjacque where he accepts the 'limits' of the 1848 Revolution, against which he had exercised his critical imagination. The 'right to work' appeared along with the rest, and with it the logic of commerce. It should be noted that, on the question of the transition, Déjacque singularly lacked 'realism' since, even if the insoluble problems posed by the perspective of workers managing the process of value-capital are ignored, he proposed giving not only women, but 'prisoners' and the 'insane' the right to vote, without any age limit. But the transition was only a second best for Déjacque and he explicitly recognized it as such. There was no abandoning of utopian exploration in favor of the transition, but a tension between the two, the opposite to what was to be the case with Errico Malatesta, with whom he could be superficially compared.

The tenor of Déjacque's utopia, its move towards breaking with all commercial and political constraints, its desire to revive the insurrectionary energy of the proletariat, and its imaginative depth (comparable to that of William Morris) enable one to see that it made a fundamental contribution to the critical element in anarchist-communism. Déjacque provided anarchist-communism during the first cycle of its history with an iconoclastic dimension, the glimmers of which are not found again until the Kropotkin of the 1880's or until Luigi Galleani in the twentieth century.


The First International, or International Working Men's Association, was organized in 1864 and was active for several years before splitting into acrimonious factions in the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871. The split that occurred in the IWMA was essentially over the details of collectivism and over the ways of arriving at a 'classless society' whose necessarily anti-commercial nature was never stated (except in Marx's Capital), or rather never played any part in shaping the practice of the organization. Bakunin himself, a left-wing Proudhonist for whom the abolition of exchange value would have been an aberration, purely and simply identified communism with a socialistic Jacobin tendency and, moreover, generally used the term 'authoritarian communism' as a pleonasm to describe it.

In August 1876, a pamphlet by James Guillaume entitled Idées sur L'organisation Sociale was published in Geneva. The importance of this text lies not in its succinct presentation of the framework of a collectivist society, but in the relation set out by Guillaume between such a society and communism. Starting out from the collective ownership of the instruments of production, that is to say from the ownership of by each 'corporation of workers in such and such an industry' and by each agricultural grouping, and hence from the ownership by each of these groups of their own products, Guillaume ends up at 'communism', or - since he does not employ this term - at the substitution of free distribution for exchange. The transition to free distribution is supposed to be organically linked to the society described by Guillaume, even though it is a society organized around the exchange of products at their value, because of the guarantee represented by the collective ownership of the means of production. The essential point here is that communism is reduced to the status of a moral norm, which it would be a good thing to move towards, and is made to appear as the natural development of a collectivist (and wage) society, with its rigid division between industrial and agricultural producers, its policy of full employment and its payment of labor power.

In making the precondition for communism a social relationship built on wage system, and by seeing this as the basis for the state becoming superfluous, Guillaume laid the foundation for the regression that was to overtake anarchist-communism and of which Malatesta was to be one of the principle representatives. According to Guillaume, the preconditions for communism were a progressive appearance of an abundance of products, which would allow calculation in terms of value to be abandoned and an improvement in the 'moral sense' of the workers to occur. This in turn would enable the principle of 'free access' to be implemented. Guillaume envisaged this train of events as being brought about by the development of commercial mechanisms, with the working class acting as their recognized agent by virtue of the introduction of collective property and the guaranteed wage. What underlay all this was the implication that the act of selling is no longer anything but a simple, technical, transitional, rationing measure.

It was precisely in opposition to this variant of Proudhonism that anarchist-communism asserted itself in what was left of the IWMA towards the end of the 1870's. In February 1876, Savoyard François Dumartheray (1842-1931) published in Geneva a pamphlet Aux Travailleurs Manuals Partisans de L'action Politique, 'corresponding to the tendencies of the section "L'Avenir", an independent group of refugees from in particular Lyons... For the first time anarchist-communism was mentioned in a printed text.' On March 18-19th of the same year, at a meeting organized in Lausanne by members of the IWMA and Communalists, Elisée Reclus delivered a speech in which he recognized the legitimacy of anarchist-communism. Still in 1876, a number of Italian anarchists also decided to adopt anarchist-communism, but the way they formulated this change indicated their limitations as far as the question of collectivism was concerned: 'The Italian Federation considers the collective ownership of the product of labor as the necessary complement of the collectivist programme.' Also, in the spring of 1877, the Statuten der Deutscheienden Anarchischkommunistischen Partei appeared in Berne.

The question of communism remained unsettled at the Verviers Congress of the 'anti-authoritarian' IWMA in September 1877, when the partisans of communism (Costa, Brousse) and the Spanish collectivists confronted each other, with Guillaume refusing to commit himself. However, the Jura Federation, which was an anarchist grouping that had been active in the French-speaking area of Switzerland throughout the 1870's, was won over to the views of Reclus, Cafiero and Kropotkin, and integrated communism into its programme at its Congress in October 1880. At this Congress, Carlo Cafiero presented a report that was later published in Le Révolté under the title 'Anarchie et Communisme'. In this report, Cafiero succinctly exposed the points of rupture with collectivism: rejection of exchange value; opposition to transferring ownership of the means of production to workers' corporations; and elimination of payment for productive activities. Furthermore, Cafiero brought out the necessary character of communism, and hence demonstrated the impossibility of a transitional period of the type envisaged by Guillaume in his 1876 pamphlet. Cafiero argued that, on the one hand, the demand for collective ownership of the means of production and 'the individual appropriation of the products of labor' would cause the accumulation of capital and the division of society into classes to reappear. On the other hand, he maintained that retaining some form of payment for individual labor power would conflict with the socialized character (indivisibility of productive activities) already imprinted on production by the capitalist mode or production. As to the need for rationing products, which might occur after the revolutionary victory, nothing would prevent such rationing from being conducted 'not according to merits, but according to needs'.

Kropotkin's contribution in favor of communism at the 1880 Congress was the culmination of a slow evolution of his position from strict collectivism to communism, by way of an intermediate position where he saw collectivism as a simple transitional stage. Kropotkin's theory of anarchist-communism, which was drawn up in its essentials during the 1880's, is an elaboration of the theses presented by Cafiero in 1880 on the conditions making communism possible and on the necessity of achieving this social form, from which exchange value would disappear. Anarchist-communism is presented as a solution to crisis-ridden bourgeois society, which is torn between the underconsumption of the proletariat, under-production and socialized labor. At the same time, anarchist-communism is seen as the realization of tendencies towards communism and the free association of individuals which are already present in the old society. In this sense, anarchist-communism is a social form which re-establishes the principle of solidarity which exists in tribal societies.

Kropotkin's anarchist-communism has the general characteristic of being based on the satisfaction of the needs - 'necessities' and 'luxuries' - of the individual, i.e., on the right to the 'entire product of one's labor' which featured in the collectivists' policy of full employment and the guaranteed wage. This satisfaction of needs was to be guaranteed by a number of measures: free distribution of products was to replace commodity exchange; production was to become abundant; industrial decentralization was to be implemented; the division of labor was to be overcome; and real economies were to be realized by the reduction of working time and the elimination of waste caused by the capitalist mode of production. Kropotkin wrote: 'a society, having recovered the possession of all riches accumulated in its midst, can liberally assure abundance to all in return for four or five hours effective manual work a day, as far as regards production.'

Yet the question arises whether the appropriation of the instruments of production by the producers, as consumers, and by consumers, as producers, referred to a new legal form of property ownership or to the abolition of property in all forms. Although the Anarchist Congress held in London in 1881 pronounced in favor of 'the abolition of all property, including collective', and although Kropotkin himself contrasted 'common use' to 'ownership', he still did not go beyond the collectivist perspective of the transfer of property to a new agent (i.e., for him, to society as a whole, rather than to industrial and trading commercial collectives). Hence, he wrote: 'For association to be useful to the workers, the form of property must be changed'.

The same ambiguity is found over the related question of the abolition of the division of labor. Certainly, the description which Kropotkin gave of the content of communist society in this respect is perfectly clear: integration of manual and intellectual labor; attractive and voluntary work; and fusion of agriculture, industry and art within 'industrial villages'. But a revolutionary strategy which puts forward the corporatist slogan of 'The land to those who cultivate it, the factory to the workers', presupposes maintaining the division of labor and the institution of the enterprise and can be said not to go beyond the establishment of a workers' and peasants' society which would still be a form of collectivism.

The organization of the new society, in its two aspects - communist and anarchist (in view of the necessary connection between a mode of production and its political form) - was to be based on the 'communist commune' (rather than on the 'free commune' of the Communalists), federalism (decentralization and economic self-sufficiency of regions or producing areas) and neighborhood assemblies. Kropotkin distinguished three possible methods of organization: on a territorial basis (federation of independent communes); on a basis of social function (federation of trades); and that which he gave all his attention, and which he hoped would expand, on the basis of personal affinity. In fact, the 'free and spontaneous grouping of individuals functioning in harmony' seemed to him to be the essential characteristic of the particular social relationship of anarchist-communism.

But the important point lies more in the forms and content of the revolutionary process, of which all this was to be the end result. The revolution was seen as an international process, starting with a long period of insurrection, whose model Kropotkin found in the repeated peasant insurrections that had preceded the French Revolution. Such a revolutionary process would end in a phase of general expropriation, which would mark the beginning of 'the reconstruction of society':

"Expropriation, such then is the problem which history has put before the people of the twentieth century: the return to Communism in all that ministers to the well-being of humanity... by taking immediate and effective possession of all that is necessary to ensure the well-being of all."

Immediate expropriation defined the whole logic of the revolutionary process for Kropotkin. Basically, it is here that the essence of his work lies. The real answer to the objection that can be made against him (regarding his optimistic assumptions about human nature, the abundance of products, and so on) lies in the alternatives which he posed: either the immediate communization of social relations or the wages system in one form or another. If proof of the stark nature of these alternatives was ever required, history has provided such proof in abundance.

For Kropotkin, the critique of the wages system was indissolubly linked with the critique of collectivism (Proudhonist or Guesdist). He wrote: 'The most prominent characteristic of our present capitalism is the wage system. Kropotkin saw the wage system as presupposing the separation of the producers from the means of production and as being based on the principle 'to each according to their deeds':

"It was by proclaiming this principle that wagedom began, to end in the glaring inequalities and all the abominations of the present society; because, from the moment work done began to be appraised in currency, or in any other form of wage... the whole history of a State-aided Capitalist society was as good as written."

The collectivists favored the 'right to work', which is 'industrial penal servitude'. In Kropotkin's view, their pro-worker policy sought to 'harness to the same cart the wages system and collective ownership', in particular through their theory of labor vouchers. Kropotkin opposed labor vouchers on the grounds that they seek to measure the exact value of labor in an economy which, being socialized, tends to eliminate all distinctions as far as contribution of each worker considered in isolation is concerned. Furthermore, the existence of labor vouchers would continue to make society 'a commercial company based on debit and credit'. Hence he denounced labor vouchers in the following terms: 'The idea... is old. It dates from Robert Owen. Proudhon advocated it in 1848. Today, it has become "scientific socialism".

Kropotkin made equally stringent criticisms of the collectivists' attitudes towards the division of labor and the State. With regard to the division of labor, he wrote: 'Talk to them [the collectivist socialists] about the organization of work during the Revolution, and they answer that the division of labor must be maintained.' As for the State, it was significant that as soon as Kropotkin had come out in favor of 'direct, immediate communist anarchism at the moment of the social revolution', he criticized the Paris Commune as an example of a revolution where, in the absence of the communist perspective, the proletariat had become bogged down in problems of power and representation. Kropotkin believed that the Paris Commune illustrated well how the 'revolutionary state' acts as a substitute for communism and provides a new form of domination linked to the wages system. In contrast to this, 'it is by revolutionary socialist acts, by abolishing individual property, that the Communes of the coming revolution will affirm and establish their independence'. Further, communism would transform the nature of the Commune itself:

"For us, 'Commune' is no longer a territorial agglomeration; it is rather a generic noun, synonym of a grouping of equals which knows neither frontiers nor walls. The social commune will soon cease to be clearly-defined whole."

For Kropotkin, what characterizes the revolutionary process is, in the first place, general expropriation, the taking possession of all 'riches' (means of production, products, houses and so on), with the aim of immediately improving the material situation of the whole population. He wrote: 'with this watchword of Bread for All the Revolution will triumph'. Since Kropotkin foresaw that a revolution would in the beginning make millions of proletarians unemployed, the solution would be to take over the whole of production so as to ensure the satisfaction of food and clothing needs. First of all, the population 'should take immediate possession of all food of the insurgent communes', draw up an inventory, and organize a provisions service by streets and districts which would distribute food free, on the principle: 'no stint of limit to what the community possesses in abundance, but equal sharing and dividing of those things which are scarce or apt to run short'. As for housing:

"If the people of the Revolution expropriate the houses and proclaim free lodgings - the communalizing of houses and the right of each family a decent dwelling - then the Revolution will have assumed a communistic character from the first... the expropriation of dwellings contains in germ the whole social revolution."

A second characteristic of Kropotkin's vision of the revolutionary process was to integrate the countryside into the process of communization, by making an agreement 'with the factory workers, the necessary raw materials given them, and the means of subsistence assured to them, while they worked to supply the needs of the agricultural population'. Kropotkin regarded the integration of town and country as of fundamental importance, since it bore on the necessity to ensure the subsistence of the population and would be accomplished by the beginning of the abolition of the division of labor, starting from the industrial centers. He thought that 'The large towns, as well as the villages, must undertake to till the soil', in a process of improvement and extension of cultivated areas. In Kropotkin's view, the agrarian question was thus decisive right from the beginning of the revolution. Kropotkin's exposition of the expropriation of the land for the benefit of society (the land to belong to everyone) was not, however, free from the ambiguity we mentioned above. To make land - as with all else - a property question amounts to placing productive activity above the satisfaction of needs, to inserting a social actor between the population and the satisfaction of their needs. Property can only be private.

This inability to break definitively with collectivism in all its forms also exhibited itself over the question of the workers' movement, which divided anarchist-communism into a number of tendencies. To say that the industrial and agricultural proletariat is the natural bearer of the revolution and communization does not tell us under what form it is or should be so. In the theory of the revolution which we have just summarized, it is the risen people who are the real agent and not the working class organized in the enterprise (the cells of the capitalist mode of production) and seeking to assert itself as labor power, as a more 'rational' industrial body or social brain (manager) than the employers. Between 1880 and 1890, the anarchist-communists, with their perspective of an immanent revolution, were opposed to the official workers' movement which was then in the process of formation (general Social Democratization). They were opposed not only to political (statist) struggles but also to strikes which put forward wage or other claims, or which were organized by trade unions. While they were not opposed to strikes as such, they were opposed to trade unions and the struggle for the eight-hour day. This anti-reformist tendency was accompanied by an anti-organizational tendency, and its partisans declared themselves in favor of agitation amongst the unemployed for the expropriation of foodstuffs and other articles, for the expropriatory strike and, in some cases, for 'individual recuperation' or acts of terrorism.

From the 1890s, however, the anarchist-communists, and Kropotkin in particular, were to begin to integrate themselves directly into the logic of the workers' movement (reproduction of waged labor power). In 1890, Kropotkin 'was one of the first to declare the urgency of entering trade unions', as a means of trying to overcome the dilemma in which, according to him, anarchist-communism risked trapping itself. Kropotkin saw this dilemma in terms of either joining with the reformist workers' movement or sterile and sectarian withdrawal. 'Workmen's organizations are the real force capable of accomplishing the social revolution', he was to declare later.

Coinciding with the birth of anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary unionism, three tendencies emerged within anarchist-communism. First, there was the tendency represented by Kropotkin himself and Les Temps Nouveaux (Jean Grave). Second, there were a number of groups which were influenced by Kropotkin but which were less reserved than him towards the trade unions (for example, Khleb i Volia in Russia). Finally, there was the anti-syndicalist anarchist-communists, who in France were grouped around Sebastien Faure's Le Libertaire. From 1905 onwards, the Russian counterparts of these anti-syndicalist anarchist-communists become partisans of economic terrorism and illegal 'expropriations'.

Certainly, it would be an 'illusion to seek to discover or to create a syndicalist Kropotkin', at least in the strict sense of the term, if only because he rejected the theory of the trade union as the embryo of future society - which did not prevent him from writing a preface in 1911 for the book written by the anarcho-syndicalists Emile Pataud and Emile Pouget, Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth (How We Shall Bring About The Revolution). But he saw the trade-union movement as a natural milieu for agitation, which it would be possible to use in the attempt to find a solution to the reformism-sectarianism dilemma. As an alternative to the strategy of the Russian 'illegalist' anarchist-communists, Kropotkin envisaged the formation of independent anarchist trade unions whose aim would be to counteract the influence of the Social Democrats. He defined his strategy in one sentence in the 1904 introduction to the Italian edition of Paroles d'un Révolté: 'Expropriation as the aim, and the general strike as the means to paralyze the bourgeois world in all countries at the same time.'

At the end of his life Kropotkin seems to have abandoned his previous reservations and to have gone so far as to see in syndicalism the only 'groundwork for the reconstruction of Russian economy'. In May 1920, he declared that: 'the syndicalist movement... will emerge as the great force in the course of the next fifty years, leading to the creation of the communist stateless society'. He was equally optimistic about the prospects facing about the prospects facing the cooperative movement. Remarks such as these opened the way for theoretical regression which was to make anarchist-communism a simple variant of anarcho-syndicalism, based on the collective management of enterprises. Reduced to the level of caricature, 'anarchist-communism' even became an empty phrase like the Spanish 'libertarian communism' of the 1930's, to say nothing of the contemporary use to which this latter term is put.


Kropotkin's last contribution, not to anarchist-communism but to its transformation into an ideology, was the introduction of the mystifying concept of Russian 'state communism'. Faced with the events of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of a capitalist state freed from the fetters of Tsarism, Kropotkin should logically have seen the new state as a form of collectivism. He should have recognized that its character was determined by the wages system, as with other varieties of collectivism which he had previously exposed. In fact, he limited himself to criticizing the Bolsheviks' methods, without drawing attention to the fact that the object towards which those methods were directed had nothing to do with communism. A good example of this is the question which he directed at Lenin in the autumn of 1920:

"Are you so blind, so much a prisoner of your authoritarian ideas, that you do not realize that, being at the head of European Communism, you have no right to soil the ideas which you defend by shameful methods...?"

After Kropotkin's death, the theory of anarchist-communism survived, but was consigned to isolation by the unfolding counter-revolution from the 1920's onwards. Unlike the Italian Left and the German-Dutch council communists (the latter above all, with their criticism of the whole workers' movement and their analysis of the general tendency for a unification of labor, capital and the state), the partisans of anarchist-communism did not really try to discover the causes of this counter-revolution; nor did they perceive its extent. As a result, their contributions amounted to little more than a formal defense of principles, without any critical depth. Moreover, these contributions ceased rapidly. Sebastien Faure's Mon Communisme appeared in 1921, Luigi Galleani's The End of Anarchism? in 1925 and Alexander Berkman's What is Communist Anarchism? (better known in its abridged form as the ABC of Anarchism) in 1929.

From this date on, if we exclude the minority current in the General Confederation of Labor, Revolutionary Syndicalist (CGTSR), whose positions were made clear by Gaston Britel, the critical force that anarchist-communism had represented left the anarchist movement to reappear with the dissident Bordigist Raoul Brémond (see his La Communauté, which was first published in 1938) and certain communist currents that arose in the 1970's. Representative of these latter was the group which published in Paris in 1975 the pamphlet Un Monde sans Argent: Le Communisme, which is discussed in Chapter 6.

As a practical movement, anarchist-communism came to an end in Mexico and Russia. In Mexico before the First World War, the Patrido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) of the brothers Enrique and Ricardo Florés Magon, supported by a movement of peasants and indigenous peoples which aimed to expropriate the land, tried to achieve anarchist-communism. The PLM's objective was to revive the community traditions of the ejidos - common lands - and ultimately to extend the effects of this essentially agrarian rebellion to the industrial areas. The PLM came to control the greater part of Lower California and was joined by a number of IWW 'Wobblies' and Italian anarchists. But it was unable to implement its project of agricultural cooperatives organized on anarchist-communist principles and was eventually defeated militarily.

The 1917 revolution in Russia gave impetus to a process that had begun before, whereby anarchist-communism was absorbed or replaced by anarcho-syndicalism. In addition to this, in certain cases anarchist-communists allowed themselves to be integrated into the Bolshevik State. It is true that a few groups refused all support, even 'critical', for the Bolsheviks and combated them with terrorism, but they experienced increasing isolation. For the last time in the twentieth century a social movement of some size - in particular in Petrograd where the Federation of Anarchists (Communists) had considerable influence before the summer of 1917, the date when the exiled syndicalists returned - consciously proposed to remove 'government and property, prisons and barracks, money and profit' and usher in 'a stateless society with a natural economy'. But their programme of systematic expropriations (as opposed to workers' control), 'embracing houses and food, factories and farms, mines and railroads', was limited in reality to several anarchist-communist groups after the February Revolution expropriating 'a number of private residences in Petrograd, Moscow, and other cities'.

As for the Makhnovist insurrectionary movement, although it was in favor of communism in the long run, and although it declared that 'all forms of the wages system must be irredeemably abolished', it nevertheless drew up a transitional program which preserved the essential features of the commodity economy within a framework of cooperatives. Wages, comparison of products in terms of value, taxes, a 'decentralized system of genuine people's banks' and direct trade between workers were all in evidence in this transitional programme.

As a conclusion, we will recall Kropotkin's warning: 'The Revolution must be communist or it will be drowned in blood.'



Submitted by Craftwork on March 27, 2017

Like other terms of political abuse which have been absorbed into our political vocabulary, the term ‘impossibilism’ tells us as much or more about the labellers as it does about the idea being described. After the French legislative election of October 1881, in which the Fédération du Parti des Travailleurs Socialistes de France won only 60,000 of the 7 million votes cast, a group based around Paul Brousse and Benoît Malon began to advocate a more pragmatic, reformist policy for the Fédération. ‘We prefer to abandon the « all-at-once » tactic practised until now’, proclaimed those who referred to themselves as Possibilists. ‘We desire to divide our ideal ends into several gradual stages to make many of our demands immediate ones and hence possible of realisation.’[1] The Possibilists regarded socialism as a progressive social process rather than an ‘all-at-once’ end. Those who regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as ‘the maximum programme’ were labelled as impossibilists.[2]

It did not take very long for the term to find its way into British use. For example, in 1896 Ramsay MacDonald, in urging ‘socialists more frequently to put themselves in the position of the man in the street’, warned that:

We can talk socialism seriously to him and we will likely disgust him; we may gas sentimentalities to him and we may capture a member who will only be one more impossibilist in our movement.[3]

While MacDonald and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) pursued the propaganda of condescension, assured in their own minds that the presentation to workers of the revolutionary alternative to capitalism would cause disgust, th`e majority of the members of the nominally Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), led by the dogmatic capitalist, H.M Hyndman, moved increasingly towards the possibilist policies of parliamentary reformism and opportunist party-building within the trade unions. At the turn of the century a small group within the SDF – some based in Scotland, some in London, but numbering no more than 400 out of the membership of 9000 – began to oppose the Federation’s drift towards possibilism. The story of the impossibilist revolt need not be repeated here; it is sufficient to point out that the leadership of the SDF pursued a minor purge against those who insisted that the Federation should stand for clear-cut non-market socialism and nothing less. [4] T.A. Jackson refers to the expulsion of Jack Fitzgerald as a ‘trumped up charge’, [5] and the obituary of Fitzgerald, published in the Socialist Standard in May 1929, commented upon the fact that he:

was jeered at by the official group, who tried to silence him by the charge of “impossibilism.” He, and the group that was with him, were confronted by a solid wall of opposition, which was the more difficult to get over because the officials held the strings, and meetings were closed to the unauthorised.

The most typically impossibilist and historically enduring product of the split in the SDF emerged in 1904 when the majority of the London impossibilists, having exhausted the possibilities of turning the SDF away from its reformist course formed a new party: the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). Although labelled by opponents as impossibilists (a term which we now use solely for historical reference and not because we have any sympathy with the assumptions upon which it is based), as in the SDF paper Justice. the workers who formed the SPGB rejected the label and its implicit accusation:

At the outset let us insist that we do not believe in impossible political tactics. None the less, our political action must be such as to awaken the workers of this country to full class-consciousness, and to the desire to abolish wage slavery. We therefore feel the necessity of avoiding any action that will endanger or obliterate our socialist identity, or allow us to be swallowed up by a Labour Movement which has yet to learn the real meaning of Class Struggle. [6]We are not . . . . ‘Impossibilists’, if Justice’s definition be correct, but we doubt its correctness, for we have usually seen what is described as ‘Impossibilism’ associated with Socialist science, working-class sincerity and correct tactics. [7]

In fact, the SPGB contended that the real impossibilists were the self-proclaimed realists who sought to humanise capitalism by means of legislative reform. [8]

Before considering the non-market socialist outlook of the SPGB – and of the parties and individuals in other parts of the world adhering to its principles – there are two other groups which deserve to be examined as examples of impossibilism in Britain.


The Socialist League split from the SDF in December 1884 in circumstances which closely resembled the impossibilist revolt two decades later. [9] Hyndman asserted that the ‘antagonism’ between the SDF and the League was ‘similar to that which existed in France between the Marxists and the Possibilists’, and although the arrogant Hyndman cast the SDF in the role of the Marxists, the analogy is, in fact, appropriate insofar as the SDF was comparable to the Possibilists and the League represented impossibilism. [10] The League rejected the idea of having a reform programme, like the ‘Stepping Stones’ of the SDF. William Morris, who fed the best revolutionary ideas in to the League, declared that ‘The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless.’ [11] Morris’s conception of socialism, which he advocated both in the League and in the years after he left it, was characterised by an awareness – uncommon amongst those claiming to be socialists, both then and now – of the nature of the social transformation which socialism would entail. Socialism would ‘put an end for ever to the wage-system’; [12] it would allow everyone to have ‘free access to the means of production of wealth’; [13] it would ‘not know the meaning of the words rich and poor, or the rights of property, or law or legality or nationality’; [14] and, if News From Nowhere is a guide to Morris’s conception of socialism, it will be a moneyless society in which the ‘extinct commercial morality of buying and selling relationships will be utterly incomprehensible to anyone but historians. [15] These features of non-market socialism are presented by Morris with a particular clarity of vision and experimental relevance, in a way that makes it hard to understand without at the same time desiring the nature of the social revolution which he is proposing. A particular quality of Morris’s conception of socialism, comparable in certain respects with the situationists of the following century, was his eagerness to relate to the down-to-earth concerns of workers. Above all, Morris saw what work could be like in a society which no longer sacrificed creative labour to commercial profit:

all work is now pleasurable; either because of the hope of gain in honour and wealth with which the work is done, which causes pleasurable excitement, even when the actual work is not pleasant; or else because it has grown into a pleasurable habit, as in the case with what you may call mechanical work; and lastly (and most of our work is of this kind) because there is conscious sensuous pleasure in the work itself; it is done, that is, by artists. [16]

That Morris was dismissed as a utopian dreamer by many self-styled socialists in his own day and since, tells us more about their conservatism than his vision. As Karl Mannheim commented, with a relevance to the concept of impossibilism of which he was not aware: The representatives of a given order will label as utopian all conceptions of existence which from their point of view can in principle never be realized.’ [17]

Unlike the SPGB, which was to accept Morris’s general picture of socialism as an immediately realisable objective, Morris himself and the Socialist League asserted that such a system could only be established after a period of transition. Morris’s transition period was conceived as being a society in which property would still exist and in ‘which currency will still be used as a means of exchange’. [18] Such a transition was not envisaged as being a long-lasting phase, [19] but the idea of a society of property and exchange relationships being defined as socialist – albeit qualified by the adjective ‘incomplete’ – must be regarded as an abuse of the term. We are not here disputing the fact that such a transition might have been necessary in the last century (Marx certainly considered that it was [20]), but that is no excuse for creating the conceptual confusion of regarding the pre-socialist transition period as the first stage of socialism.


The same criticism must be levelled against the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which broke away from the SDF a year before the SPGB. This party modelled its ideas on the industrial unionist policy of Daniel DeLeon and the American SLP. Like the Socialist League and the SPGB, the mainly Scottish impossibilists who formed the SLP advanced a conception of non-market socialism which can be seen to fall within the tradition of thought being considered in this book. But, while stating that ‘There will be no money under Socialism’, the SLP goes on to state that:

With the establishment of a system of production-for-use, labor-time vouchers, which the workers may exchange for goods and services, will take the place of money.Accordingly, under Socialism the worker will receive a labor-time voucher from his union showing that he has worked a certain number of hours. This time voucher will enable him to withdraw from the social store as much as he contributed to it, after the necessary deductions are made for replacement of wornout equipment, expansion of production, schools, parks, public health etc. [21]

An economy based on labor-vouchers would, in effect, be a non-socialist society: first, because the law of value would still exist, measuring the worth of labour input and allowing certain amounts of goods and services to be used on the basis of equivalent value (no mention is made of those who do not work); second, because the limitations of access to the common store by means of vouchers could easily lead to the circulation of vouchers, which would be in effect monetary circulation; and finally, because the absence of free access on the basis of self-defined needs and self-restraint (where materially necessary) imposes a form of economic alienation which is incompatible with the freedom of a non-exchange society sought by socialists. As early as 1918 the SLP (in Scotland) published Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme under the title of The Socialist Programme. In that work Marx makes the case for the use of labour vouchers in the very early days of socialism, but points out that ‘these defects’ will be transcended when ‘the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly’. [22] The case for the immediate abolition of the law of value and its monetary expression is argued by the SPGB, which rejects the relevance of Marx’s ideas about labour vouchers, [23] while the SLP (no longer active in Britain, but still existing in the USA) persists in advocating a form of ‘socialism’ without free access. It must be emphasised that the SLP’s abuse of the concept of socialism is more serious than that of the Socialist League, for in the latter case it was at least proposed that labour vouchers would exist only in the brief transition period, while the SLP sees a need for such a rationing system within the period that Morris might have called ‘complete socialism’.

Having criticised the SLP on one crucial point, it can still be said that it and other DeLeonists have made an outstanding contribution during the course of the century to propaganda in favour of the abolition of class monopoly and wage labour. Between 1903 and 1917, in addition to its very limited success in the creation of socialist trade unions, the SLP in Britain did valuable work in providing basic Marxist education for workers. After the Bolshevik coup d’état of 1917 one section of the SLP turned enthusiastically to Bolshevism (even though they were criticised by Lenin for taking Bolshevik propaganda at its face value [24]), while those who rejected the Bolshevik tactics maintained a dwindling party in Britain until quite recently. Today in the USA the DeLeonist movement has split in different directions, with journals like The Socialist Republic and The Industrial Unionist, as well as The People, published by the SLP, providing valuable analyses of the class struggle.


In June 1904 the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted an Object and Declaration of Principles which it has not since changed. In September of that year the first issue of the Socialist Standard was published and th Object and Declaration of principles have appeared in every monthly issue since then – not a single month’s publication having ever been missed, despite the difficult circumstances of two world wars and frequent financial crises. Consistency has been the hallmark of the SPGB – a persistence of outlook which has infuriated, intrigued and won respect from those aware of it. The ideas of the Party have travelled: parties in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and Ireland, groups in Austria, Sweden and France, and active supporters as far apart as Jamaica, India and Hong Kong hold tight not only to the principles of the Party (which refers to itself internationally as the World Socialist Movement), but also to a certain political style which steers an unsteady course between uncompromising clarity and doctrinaire intolerance.

The Object shared by the SPGB and the other parties and groups of the World Socialist Movement does not tell us in much detail what they stand for:

The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Nor do the eight principles offer great help in outlining the non-market socialist aim: in Clause 3 the points made in the Object are repeated in different words; Clause 4 makes it clear that socialist emancipation will be ‘without distinction of race or sex’ (an advanced proposition for 1904); and Clause 8 refers to ‘comfort’, ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ as being benefits to be gained in socialism. The SPGB has traditionally shaed Marx’s caution about devising utopian blueprints for socialism. None the less, much more has been said and written by SPGB-style impossibilists about socialism than is to be found in the Object and Principles. In his 20th Century World Socialist or Communist Manifesto, published in 1951, M. J. Panicker explains that:

Socialism is a universal system of society where there will be no buying and selling. Consequently all institutions which are now functioning only for the running of this buying and selling will disappear. Money, banks, insurance companies and several other institutions will disappear. All the resources of the world, the means and instruments of wealth production and social services necessary to the sustenance of mankind will be held in common by the whole people of the community as you and I breathe air or drink water. All the people will happily work and they will have free access to their needs. Each and everyone will determine his own needs. [25]

Panicker has spent years advocating these ideas in India. It is accepted by all SPGB-impossibilists that socialism will entail the immediate ending of the capital/wage-labour relationship:

there can be no wages system. Wages, of course, mean that somebody is working for somebody else – they imply rich and poor, two classes. To talk of wages under socialism is ridiculous. [26]

Similarly, it is seen as being ridiculous to speak of the existence of money in a society of common ownership. In 1943 two chemists by the name of Phillips and Renson (writing under the name of Philoren) wrote an excellent book introducing the idea of socialism (without using the term socialism) entitled Money Must Go; in it they argued that:

What I do propose is, that the whole system of money and exchange, buying and selling, profit-making and wage-earning should be entirely abolished and that instead, the community as a whole should organise and administer the production of goods for use only, and the free distribution of these goods to all the members of the community according to each person’s needs. [27]

What about the state? Long before widespread nationalisation took place in Britain, the SPGB had pointed out ‘how little difference there is from the workers’ point of view between State capitalism and private capitalism, whether under a Conservative or a Labour government’. [28] According to the SPGB, socialism will be a stateless society:

The State, which is an organisation composed of soldiers, policemen, judges, and gaolers charged with enforcing the law, is only needed in class society, for in such societies there is no community of interest, only class conflict. The purpose of government is to maintain law and order in the interests of the dominant class. It is in fact an instrument of class oppression. In Socialism there will be no classes and no in-built class conflicts . . . . The phrase ‘socialist government’ is a contradiction in terms. Where there is Socialism there is no government and where there is government there is no Socialism. [29]

A distinction between government and democratic administration is made. The SPGB has tended to refrain from extensive speculation about the precise organisation of the stateless society, pointing out that such decisions must be made by those establishing socialism, in accordance, no doubt, with ideas and plans formulated in the course of the revolutionary process. Many different kinds of bodies might be used by the inhabitants of socialist society:

there is intrinsically nothing wrong with institutions where delegates assemble to parley (Parliaments, congresses, diets or even so-called soviets). What is wrong with them today is that such parliaments are controlled by the capitalist class. Remove class society and the assemblies will function in the interest of the whole people [30]

Advocates of soviets or council communism will note that their insistence upon how socialism would have to be organised is not ruled out by the SPGB. The point emphasised is that those establishing socialism will be free to determine the nature of its administration. Of course, such a decision will not be based upon utopian fancy, but will have to accord with the historical circumstances existing at the time of the revolution:

The basis of industrial organisation and administration will start from the arrangements existing under Capitalism at the time of the transformation, and this will present no difficulties because the Socialist movement will already be thoroughly international, both in outlook and practical organisation. As far as the machinery of organisation and administration is concerned, it will be local, regional, national and international, evolvong out of existing forms. [31]

The quotations given demonstrate clearly that the essential features of non-market socialism are advocated unequivocally by the SPGB and those sharing its principles. One does not have to search long to find within such literature clear and simple statements of what socialism means. Indeed, one strength of impossibilist literature is its tendency to get to the point. Perhaps at the cost of being repetitive – and after eighty years that is forgivable – the SPGB remembers (usually at least) to address itself to the uninitiated who do not want to read about one hundred new positions before they have been told the facts of life. Poets write stirring poetry and philosophers polemicise well, but it takes a straight talker to deliver a plain and urgent message; even its enemies have never accused the SPGB of being other than straight talkers.


Two political terms which are important in explaining the SPGB position are Consciousness and Democracy. This is because of the particular emphasis placed by the impossibilists upon the inseparability of means and ends. If socialism is to be a society in which the conditions of life ‘hitherto dominating humanity now pass under the dominion and control of humanity, which now the first time becomes the real conscious master of its own social organization’, [32] then such a system is not to be created by minority imposition. The SPGB insists, therefore, that majority socialist consciousness is a prerequisite for socialism. The task of spreading socialist understanding and desire is not to be evaded, even though:

the faint-hearted may shy away, aghast at the prospect of trying to convince the world’s workers of the need for Socialism. It may seem an enormous task but there is no choice in the matter. Socialism . . . depends upon the conscious support of its people. Unless people understand Socialism and want it, they will nevr establish it. [33]

This socialist consciousness requires workers to experience ‘a process of complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome . . . the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel.’ [34] Images of The New Socialist Man come to mind – but socialists do need to think very carefully about this question of what it means to have achieved the necessary consciousness for social liberation. Two points can be made here about the SPGB and the recruitment of members – a subject about which there are more than a few myths. First, while it is true that the SPGB will not allow a person to join it until the applicant has convinced the branch applied to that she or he is a conscious socialist, this does not mean that the SPGB has set itself up as an intellectual elite into which only those well versed in Marxist scholarship may enter. The SPGB has good reason to ensure that only conscious socialists enter its ranks, for, once admitted, all members are equal and it would clearly not be in the interest of the Party to offer equality of power to those who are not able to demonstrate equality of basic socialist understanding. Second, the SPGB does not claim that socialist consciousness will come to dominate the working-class outlook simply, or even largely, as a result of the activity of socialists. As the Socialist Party of Australia puts it:

if we hoped to achive Socialism ONLY by our propaganda, the outlook would indeed be bad. But it is capitalism itself, unable to solve crises, unemployment and poverty, engaging in horrifying wars, which is digging its own grave. Workers are learning by bitter experience and bloody sacrifice for interests not their own. They are learning very slowly. Our job is to shorten the time, to speed up the process. [35]

This contrasts with those who seek to substitute he party for the class or who see the party as a vanguard which must undertake alone the sectarian task of leading the witless masses forward into the next stage of history.

According to the SPGB, the revolution must be a democratic act. Political action must be taken by the conscious majoirty, without depending upon leadership:

it is upon the working class that the working class must rely for their emancipation. Valuable work may be done by individuals, and this work may necessarily raise them to prominence, but it is not to individuals, either of the working class or of the capitalist class, that the toilers must look. The movement for freedom must be a working class movement. It must depend upon the working class vitality and intelligence and strength. Until the knowledge and experience of the working class are equal to the task of revolution there can be no emancipation for them. [36]

This brings us to the controversial question of how the independent, conscious, democratically organised working class will establish socialism. To say – as many superficial critics and vague advocates of the SPGB have – that the SPGB stands for ‘socialism through parliament’ or ‘parliamentary socialism’ is misleadingly incomplete. When Alex Anderson, the great orator of the SPGB’s first years, was tackled by a syndicalist with the question, ‘Does the SPGB really propose to establish socialism through the ballot box?’, his reply was ‘Yes, but more importantly we must win it through the brain box.’ This linking of the conquest of state power with the concept of a consciously and democratically organised working-class majority, even if regarded as strategically incorrect, must be distinguished from the reformist parliamentarianism of those who, in the name of ‘socialism’, seek to enter parliament for other purposes than to express the majority mandate formally to abolish class rule. Engels rightly points out that the conquest of state power will be the final act of the working class; [37] the significance of such political action may be ignored by those within the ‘anarchist tradition’, but in the historical future it might be ignored at a tragic cost. Whatever may be thought of the SPGB’s case for the working class, in the course of the socialist revolution, sending mandated delegates to parliament as well as organising industrially to keep production going, it is clearly those who insist that ballot boxes and parliaments can play no part in the establishment of socialism and assert that socialism can only be established via industrial organisation alone, who are being dogmatic and historically fetishised in their thinking about revolution.

The non-dogmatic impossibilist position on the relationship between parliament and the socialist revolution was best summed up by William Morris:

I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so; in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels and not as members of the governing body prepared by passing palliative measures to keep ‘Society’ alive. [38]


In considering the strengths and weaknesses of the SPGB’s impossibilism, one is forced to conclude that these characteristics are not politically separable: that which in one sense manifests itself as a strength appears from another angle as a weakness. Therefore, the temptation to list the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ points of impossibilism will be avoided and this chapter will conclude with general observations which are intended to assist the readers in deciding the strengths and weaknesses of impossibilism.

The first feature which distinguishes the SPGB from other non-market socialist traditions considered in other chapters is its endurance over eighty years in a single organisation. In short, we are not just examining an intellectual tradition, but can observe the tradition as being contained within an essentially unchanged political party for a far longer period than any other concept of non-market socialism has survived organisationally. Thousands of workers in Britain have at some time been members of the SPGB and today, with a membership of 600, the Party has quite tangible support from many more workers than that. If one turns to the Socialist Standard of 1904 one can read basically the same analysis of capitalism and statements about socialism as would be found in 1934 or 1984. There are some who would see such consistency as a strength and others who would regard such a record of unaltered social perception as a serious weakness. As an example of the former, the SPGB propagandist of the late 1970s, arguing against the reformism of the ‘Right to Work’ Campaign and pointing out that full employment cannot be created by governments and even if it could such a condition amounts tto no more than the right to be exploited, is able to argue with even greater credibility when he or she can point to the Socialist Standard editorial of November 1904 in which precisely the same argument is presented. Having existed long enough to have seen the possibilists’ ‘somethings now’ burst to life and vanish into disillusion more times than the reformists care to remember, the SPGB has served as an observation post, charting the failed short-cuts of reformist history and storing them up for reference when the next possibilist rushes into the capitalist slaughter-house loaded with promises for the cattle.

The record of accurate prediction and sound analysis for which the SPGB can claim credit is an impressive one. Before 1906, when the Labour Party was founded, the reformist nature of that political movement was predicted. In 1914, when ‘socialists’ across the world succumbed to the temptation of national chauvinism and supported the imperialist war, the SPGB stood out in unqualified opposition to the war, producing at the time probably the finest anti-war manifesto ever to be published in English. [39] In 1918, shortly after the Bolsheviks seized state power in Russia, the SPGB presented a Marxist analysis of the ‘revolution’ which foresaw its state capitalist outcome. [40] In the 1920s, the SPGB was virtually the only British contender for the theory of Marxism against its Leninist distorters within the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). In 1926, the SPGB predicted that syndicalism, or trade-union militancy without conscious political action, was doomed to failure. In 1939, another world capitalist war was exposed as being nothing like a ‘war for democracy’ and was opposed[41] and, subsequently, the bogus socialism of Labour government nationalisation and welfare reform policies was predicted and charted.[42] It has been, in one sense, an impressive record of predicting historical failures: national liberation, CND, environmentalism, charities – the SPGB warned them all that, even on their own terms, these possibilist movements would end up faced with frustration.

A record of being right about the futility of other people’s hopes and energetic actions has led to the conclusion on the part of many reformists that the SPGB is somehow opposed to improvements within capitalism. It would not be unfair to state that this misconception has been accepted by a few SPGBers themselves. A. E. Jacomb, writing in the October 1905 Socialist Standard, explains well the position of the impossibilist worker:

I claim it as a fundamental truth that the object of every Socialist, as a Socialist, is the realisation of Socialism alone. As a husband, as a father, as a human animal, he has many other interests . . . but in his Socialist position none. As a man he may favour palliatives, the feeding and clothing and comforting of the destitute and suffering, but as a Socialist such matters are of interest only so far as they affect the attainment of his objective.

This distinction cannot be more than ‘an abstract separation’ (as Jacomb goes on to concede), but it is a necessary one for those less interested in short-term concessions than fundamental transformation. The SPGB states that it is opposed to reformism, but not to reforms.

The price of long-term persistence and validity of argument has had to be paid by the SPGB. Although many possibilists have a definite respect for the endurance and soundness of their impossibilists rivals, whom they would regard as being theoretically correct but practically unrealistic (an absurdly illogical conclusion), there are other possibilists who find few labels more contemptible than SPGB. This hostility was not unknown before the 1920s, when parties like the SDF and ILP devoted more words to attacking the SPGB than the Party’s small size deserved. But it was in the 1920s, when the CPGB’s Leninist mission began, that the organised attacks upon the SPGB commenced. By the 1930s, CPGB policy was to break up SPGB public meetings and CPGB members were actually instructed by their leaders not to speak to SPGBers lest they be tempted to believe the SPGB’s ‘propaganda’ about the state capitalist tyranny of the Stalinist regime. When, in the 1940s, the West Ham branch of the SPGB invited the local CPGB to engage in a debate, they were told that ‘The Communist Party has NO dealings with murderers, liars, renegades or assassins’ who must be treated as ‘vipers, to be destroyed’. [43] After the Second World War. CPGB union bureaucrats conducted a vicious campaign to oust from trade union positions SPGBers who had refused to do their ‘patriotic duty’ in the war. The legacy of anti-SPGB slander has been slow to die, and it is common to meet Leninists even today who will repeat their intellectual predecessors’ resentful attacks upon the party that would not fall in line with Stalinism; such prejudice is all the more tragic/comic when it is considered that many of the anti-impossibilist young Leninists of today are Trotskyists who are repeating – now that it is fashionable to do so – many of the arguments against Stalinism which were put by the SPGB half a century ago.

One does not want to paint a picture of the SPGB as the offended innocent, treated with hostility without cause. It must be remembered that the SPGB’s Principles commit it ‘to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist’. [44] This it has done without compromise and, at times, without making the necessary distinction between hostility of principle and of style. The SPGB has made clear that it is opposed to those so-called socialists, communist, Marxists and radicals who would appear to be its allies, and in so doing it has gained a reputation – largely, but not wholly undeserved – for a certain sectarianism. This latter characteristic has been stronger at different times in the Party’s history, depending largely upon the outlooks of the most active organisers and propagandists in a particular period.

Another problem arising from the SPGB’s longevity is that of credibility. After more than three-quarters of a century, a party calling upon the working class ‘to muster under its banner to the ned that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system’ [45] is open to the accusation that, as the workers have not yet mustered and the termination has thus far been less than speedy, there must be something wrong with its policy. Of course, the reasonable historical answer to this is that lack of numerical support does not disprove the validity of a proposition. But, as the years have passed, cynics and empiricists have been able to contemplate with complacency the negative historical confirmation of their lack of hope for the SPGB’s success.

The second concluding observation to be made about impossibilism, which can be seen either as a strength or a weakness, depending upon one’s perspective, is that it has held tight to the basic tenets of Marxist theory. Indeed, two comments are made frequently about the SPGB: first, that if nothing else it possesses a fine knowledge of Marxism and plays a major role in spreading such knowledge; second, that the SPGB represents an orthodox, purist version of Marxism which has remained remarkably close to that which was revolutionary in the thinking of the theory’s founders. The study of Marx’s writings was frowned upon in Hyndman’s SDF – the ex-Etonian demagogue thought that SDF members would do better to study his books – and it was partly as a result of organising unauthorised Marxist economics classes that the young Jack Fitzgerald was hounded out of the SDF. From its inception the SPGB placed great emphasis upon the study and propagation of political economy. Indeed, it is the political link between the Marxist theory of value and profit and the revolutionary implication that class exploitation can only be ended by the abolition of wage labour which provided the most forceful theoretical justification of the SPGB’s aim. SPGB propagandists, especially in the early years , placed great emphasis upon the concept of legalised robbery: the robber class and the robbed. Possibilists were forced to defend their palliative policies in terms of adjusting the operation of class robbers. In recent years, since many ‘Marxists’ have rejected economic determinism ( a dogma which Marx and Engels were at pains to dismiss), it has become fashionable for ‘Marxist humanists’ to understate the significance of Marxist political economy. The SPGB has not followed this trend; it is still expected that official SPGB speakers should have a comprehensive knowledge of Marxist economic theory before they take the platform on behalf of the Party.

Whilst the SPGB has not failed to make clear those matters upon which it disagrees with Marx, some of which are far from peripheral, [46] its presentation of its ideas as Marxist has led to many difficulties. These are mainly difficulties faced by any Marxist in the twentieth century who does not want to be associated with the opportunists and tyrants who claim to be following in the Marxist tradition. The extent to which modern Marxists can rescue themselves from such awkward intellectual associations depends to a great extent upon whether Leninism can be regarded as part of, or in opposition to, the essential principles of Marxism. The impossibilists have devoted much energy to demonstrating the extent to which Marxism and Leninism are opposed to each other. [47] If such an interpretation is accepted, then the state ideologies of the modern ‘communist’ police states can be seen as Leninist, but not Marxist.

Like any theory, Marxism is open to dogmatic abuse, and, although impossibilist writers and speakers have tended generally to treat Marxist theory with a proper degree of critical reasoning, examples of Marxist dogmatism are certainly to be found sprinkled throughout the recorded history of impossibilist propaganda. But, despite the very real dangers of theoretical dogmatism, a distinction must be observed between the intellectual conviction which is a product of a theoretically defensible Marxist positivism, and the religious adjustment of social perception to fit in which dogma which is the product of a mind which has descended from reason to belief.

The third noteworthy point about the impossibilists – which is not unrelated to the origin of the SPGB within the English autodidactic tradition – is their tendency to argue in accordance with the strict standards of formal logic and empirical proof. Although such an admission would be regarded by certain European ‘Marxists’ as a confession of philosophical deficiency, impossibilists have always been suspicious of philosophical formulae and have never been impressed by the dialectical gymnastics of the fluid logicians, whose sophistication of thought is usually regarded as a refined front for evasion and confusion. [48] The impossibilists have always preferred clear-cut definitions, quotations, statistics, and logically comprehensible deductions to the methodological abstractions against which E.P. Thompson has written persuasively. [49]

Of course, it may be commented by critics that the price of impossibilist simplicity has been over-simplification. Faced with the choice between abstruse detail and simplification which may lack theoretical refinement, the impossibilists have erred in the right direction by opting in general for comprehensibility, even if it is occasionally at the expense of sophistication.

This concern for comprehensible propagandism is at the very root of the impossibilists’ conception of their revolutionary mission. Always identifying their role within an activist, rather than contemplative, context, the impossibilists have seen their purpose, in the words of William Morris, as being ‘to make socialists’. And when all the grandness of revolutionary rhetoric is brushed aside, it is, at the end of the day, the worker putting the case for the abolition of wage labour to her mates during the lunch break, the man on the soapbox who is cultivating new social visions in the imaginations of his listeners, the man who is known in his local pub as the fellow who is always talking about a world without money – it is these who are doing the real work of giving their fellow workers a taste of the impossible. When the taste turns into a hunger it will be time for those who need socialism to show, in ways which will ultimately be determined by them, that they posses the ‘courage and strength to realise the impossible. [50]


[1] Prolétaire 19 November 1881 (emphasis in the original).

[2] Aaron Noland, The Founding of the French Socialist Party, 1893-1905 (New York: Fertig, 1970) p. 13. I would not regard Guesde, Lafargue and the other French ‘impossibilists’ as impossibilists in the sense in which the term is used in this chapter.

[3] Rochdale Labour News, October 1896.

[4] Stephen Coleman, ‘The Origin and Meaning of the Political Theory of Impossibilism’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London, 1984). See also Chushichi Tsuzuki, ‘The Impossibilist Revolt in Britain’, International Review of Social History, 1 (1956). Tsuzuki’s article, whilst being very acceptable as a work of narrative scholarship, places less emphasis upon the intellectual conflict between possibilism and impossibilism than does my own study.

[5] T.A Jackson, Solo Trumpet (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1953) p.66.

[6] Circular statement issued by impossibilists within the SDF in May 1904. I possess a copy of this document.

[7] Socialist Standard, September 1907.

[8] See ‘Who Are the Impossibilists?’, Socialist Standard, November 1912.

[9] Coleman, 1984, ch. 6. See also Stephen Coleman, ‘What Can We Learn From William Morris?’, Journal of the William Morris Society, VI (summer 1985) pp. 12-15.

[10] H. M. Hyndman, Further Reminiscences (London: Macmillan, 1912) p. 2.

[11] ‘Art and Socialism’, in Collected Works of William Morris, vol. XXIII (London: Longman, 1910-15) p. 208.

[12] Manifesto of the Socialist League, reproduced in E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London: Merlin, 1977) appendix 1. Also reproduced in Socialist Standard, July 1985.

[13] True and False Society (Socialist League, 1888) pp. 16-17.

[14] ‘The Society of the Future’, in A. L. Morton, Political Writings of William Morris (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1973) p. 201.

[15] William Morris, News From Nowhere (London: Routledge, 1970) p. 31.

[16] Ibid, p. 78 (emphasis in the original).

[17] Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (London: Routledge, 1936) pp. 176-7 (emphasis in the original).

[18] See Morris’s and E. Belfort Bax’s Notes on the Manifesto of the Socialist League, in Thompson, 1977, p. 738.

[19] See Adam Buick, ‘William Morris and Incomplete Communism: a Critique of Paul Meier’s Thesis’, Journal of the William Morris Society III (summer 1976) pp. 16-32.

[20] See his Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, vol. III (Moscow: Progress, 1970) pp. 9-30; and proposed policies listed at the end of the second section of The Communist Manifesto, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. VI (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976) p. 505.

[21] Socialism: Questions Most Frequently Asked and Their Answers (New York: Socialist Labor Party, 1975) p. 20.

[22] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. III, p. 19.

[23] See the articles by A. Buick and P. Lawrence in The World Socialist, 2 (autumn 1984).

[24] V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. XXXI (Moscow: Progress, 1966) pp. 77ff.

[25] M. J. Panicker, 20th Century World Socialist or Communist Manifesto (London: Panicker, 1951) p. 66.

[26] Socialism or Chaos (Melbourne/Sydney: Socialist Party of Australia, no date) p. 19

[27] Philoren, Money Must Go (London: J. Phillips, 1943) p. 16.

[28] Socialist Standard, April 1930. See also Nationalisation or Socialism? (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1945).

[29] Questions of the Day (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1978) pp. 97-98.

[30] Socialist Principles Explained (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1975) p. 15.

[31] Socialist Standard, February 1939.

[32] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring (Peking: Foreign Language press, 1976) p. 366.

[33] The Case For Socialism (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1962) p. 42.

[34] Socialist Standard, September 1980.

[35] Socialism or Chaos, p. 35.

[36] The Socialist Party – Its Principles and Policy (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1934) pp. 22-3.

[37] Engles, Anti-Dühring p. 362

[38] Letter to Dr J. Glasse, 23 May 1887, in R. Page Arnot, William Morris: the Man and the Myth (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964) p. 82.

[39] Reprinted in The Socialist Party and War (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1970) pp. 60-2.

[40] See Socialist Standard, August 1918. For detailed analysis of the SPGB’s response to the Bolshevik coup, see Coleman, 1984, ch. 5./br>

[41] The SPGB’s statement on the Second World War is reprinted in The Socialist Party and War, pp. 62-4.

[42] See Beveridge Re-Organises Poverty (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1943), and Family Allowances: a Socialist Analysis (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1943).

[43] Socialist Standard, May 1943.

[44] Declaration of Principles, clause 8.

[45] Ibid, clause 8.

[46] For example, the SPGB does not endorse Marx’s ideas regarding struggles for national liberation, minimum reform programmes, labour vouchers, the lower stage of communism. On some of these points, the SPGB does not reject what Marx advocated in his own time, but rejects their applicability to revolutionaries now; on the other points, the SPGB approaches social problems from a different angle from adopted by Marx. There are, of course, other issues (not listed above) upon which the SPGB might appear to be at variance with Marx, but is in fact only disputing distortions of Marx’s thinking.

[47] See Lenin Distorts Marx (Victoria: Socialist Party of Canada, 1979).

[48] See The Socialist Party of Great Britain and Historical Materialism (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1975) ch. 7 on ‘Dialectical Materialism’, pp. 39-48.

[49] E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory London: Merlin, 1978). See title essay.

[50] A quotation from the anabaptist Thomas Müntzer in Mannheim, 1936, p. 192.


Council Communism

Council Communism

Council communism is a theory of working-class struggle and revolution which holds that the means that workers will use to fight capitalism, overthrow it, and establish and administer communist society, will be the workers' councils.

Submitted by Ed on February 9, 2009

Historically, workers' councils (or 'soviets', from the Russian word for council) first arose in Russia in 1905. During that year, workers in many industrial areas engaged in mass strike. In the absence of any widespread trade-union organisation, these strikes were organised by committees of delegates elected from the factory floor. Where workers of several trades or industries were on strike at the same time, delegates from the separate strike committees often met in central bodies to unify and coordinate the struggle. The most famous example of this was the St Petersburg Soviet, formed in October 1905. As well as agitating over economic issues, such as limitation of the length of the working day, the soviets raised political demands, such as for the convocation of Constituent Assembly.

The events in Russia in 1905 made a considerable impact on revolutionaries in Western Europe, and particularly Germany. At this stage, however, the soviets were not yet regarded as the most important feature of the struggle; Anton Pannekoek, a leading theoretician of council communism whose writings will form the basis of this account, recalled later that the soviets were 'hardly noticed as a special phenomenon' at the time.[1] Instead it was the mass strikes of 1905 which made the greatest impression, as typified by Rosa Luxemburg's famous account of 1905, which was titled The Mass Strike, and which contained only one fleeting reference to the soviets.[2]

For revolutionaries such as Pannekoek and Luxemburg of the 'left wing' of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) the mass strike was one of the first signs of the emergency of new forms of organisation and struggle corresponding to new developments within capitalism. After the First World War this recognition was developed into a theory which saw the working class's use of parliament and trade unions as belonging to a period when capitalism was still an expanding system and workers were able to win substantial reforms. From around the turn of the century onwards, however, as capitalism entered the crisis which led to the First World War, it became increasingly difficult for workers to wrest any concessions from the ruling class other than through action on a mass scale. Furthermore, the end of capitalist expansion also opened up the prospect of a revolutionary overthrow of system, and this was again a task to which new forms of mass action would be fitted better than the old parliamentary and trade-union methods.

When the workers' councils re-emerged in Russia following the February Revolution in 1917 they surpassed the point they reached in 1905, setting themselves up as a rival to the authority of the state and then (or so it seemed at the time) seizing power themselves in the October Revolution. 'Now their importance was grasped by the workers of Western Europe', wrote Pannekoek.[3] In a pamphlet completed in July 1918, another prominent council communist, Herman Gorter, wrote of the soviets in Russia: 'The working class of the world has found in these Workers' Councils its organisation and its centralisation, its form and its expression, for the revolution and for the Socialist society.'[4]

Under the impact of the Russian Revolution, and the German Revolution the following year, various small revolutionary groups which had split from the SPD over its support for the First World War formed themselves into the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), voting by a majority to adopt anti-parliamentary and anti-trade union positions at the founding congress in 1918. When referring to this period, this anti-parliamentary and anti-trade-union majority can for convenience's sake be called 'left communists', since at the time their political views appeared to be a 'more extreme' version of the 'orthodoxy' by which they were defined, i.e. the Bolshevism of Lenin and the Third International.

Before long, however, the apparently tactical differences between the left communists and the Bolsheviks came to a head. During 1919 the left communist majority was forced out of the KPD by means of bureaucratic manoeuvring, and in April 1920 formed itself into the Communist Workers' Party of Germany (KAPD). The KAPD was one of the groups which Lenin attacked in his polemic against 'Left-Wing' Communism, an Infantile Disorder (1920).[5]

Lenin's criticisms were answered immediately by Herman Gorter in a lengthy 'Open Letter to Comrade Lenin', written in the summer of 1920. Gorter had already expressed the basic premise of the 'Open Letter' in his 1918 work on The World Revolution, when he had argued that 'The condition of the Western European Revolution, especially in England and Germany, are entirely unlike, and cannot be compared with, those of the Russian Revolution.'[6] Gorter argued that in Russia the working class had been able to ally with the peasantry to overthrow a weak ruling class. In Western Europe, on the other hand, the working class had no natural allies, and faced a very powerful ruling class. Therefore all tactics for the class struggle in Western Europe had to aim at increasing the power, autonomy and class consciousness of the workers. The tactics advocated by Lenin and the Third International - such as participation in parliament and in the trade unions, and alliances with Social Democratic Parties came nowhere near to fulfilling such criteria. According in Gorter:

"As the Third International does not believe in the fact that in Western Europe the proletariat will stand alone, it neglects the mental development of this proletariat; which in every respect is deeply entangled in the bourgeois ideology as yet; and chooses tactics which leave the slavery and subjection to bourgeois ideas unmolested, intact.

The Left Wing [by contrast] chooses its tactics in such a way that in the first place the mind of the worker is made free."[7]

At first, the KAPD, along with like-minded groups from other countries, fought for its perspectives within the Third International, believing that "Whoever wishes to conduct the West-European revolution according to the tactics and by the road of the Russian revolution, is not qualified to conduct it."[8] It met with no success in this struggle, however, and left the International in 1921 after the Third Congress.

Soon afterwards, a section of the KAPD (the so-called 'Essen tendency') tried to set up a new, Fourth (Communist Workers') International. Given the reflux of the post-war revolutionary wave, such a venture was doomed to failure, but the Fourth International (or KAI) is still interesting in that the attempt to establish it had to be justified by a critique of the Third International, the Russian state, and the Russian Revolution.

The 'Manifesto of the Fourth Communist International' (written by Gorter in 1921) argued that the Russian Revolution had been a 'dual revolution': in the towns, a working-class, communist revolution against capitalism, and, in the countryside, a peasant, capitalist revolution against feudalism. This contradictory and antagonistic duality had been resolved in favour of peasant-capitalist interests in 1921, with the introduction of the New Economic Policy. Thenceforth the 'Soviet Government' had ceased to serve working-class interests; it had become a capitalist state. Insofar as the Third International was tied to the interests of the Russian state, it too lad become a capitalist institution. Hence the need for the formation of a new workers' International.[9]

While Gorter was characterising the Russian Revolution as a 'dual revolution' - part communist, part capitalist - other left communists went further in their critique. In 1921, Pannekoek argued that 'the Russian revolution is a bourgeois revolution, like the French one of 1789'.[10] In time this view became predominant among the left communists. By 1923 Gorter seemed to have abandoned his 'dual revolution' thesis when he argued that 'even in their First, revolutionary, so-called communist stage, the Bolsheviks showed their bourgeois character'.[11] Another left communist, Otto Rühle, had come to the conclusion that the Russian Revolution had been a capitalist revolution even before Pannekoek or Gorter, and in 1924 he too wrote that the Russian Revolution had been 'the last in the line of the great bourgeois revolutions of Europe'.[12]

Thereafter the term 'left communism' became increasingly redundant. What had initially appeared to be disagreements over the tactics of the working-class revolution in Russia and Western Europe were now understood as fundamental differences between the methods of the capitalist revolution in Russia and the communist revolution in Western Europe.

Revolutionaries such as Gorter, Rühle and Pannekoek analysed the Russian Revolution as a 'bourgeois' revolution leading to the establishment of state capitalism. For the working class the lasting significance of the Russian Revolution did not lie in the type of society to which it had given rise, but in the forms of action used by the Russian workers during the revolution:

"Russia showed to the European and American workers, confined within reformist ideas and practice, first how an industrial working class by gigantic mass actions of wild strikes is able to undermine and destroy an obsolete state power; and second, how in such actions the strike committees develop into workers' councils, organs of fight and of self-management, acquiring political tasks and functions."[13]

Thus, through their central emphasis on the council form, those formerly styled 'left communists' came to be known as 'council communists'.

At the beginning of the 1920s the KAPD had claimed a membership in excess of 40 000. In close alliance were a further 200 000 workers in the revolutionary anti-trade-union 'factory organisations' under the umbrella of the General Workers' Union of Germany (AAUD). However, as is the case with any active communist organisations outside periods of revolutionary turmoil, these numbers steadily decreased throughout the 1920s, so that by the 1930s the council communists existed only as small, scattered propagandist groups, mainly in Germany and Holland. The Dutch Group of International Communists (GIG), which was formed in 1927, published the journal Rätekorrespondenz ('Council Correspondence'). This served as the vehicle for numerous important theoretical debates, many of which were taken up by the German revolutionary emigrés in the USA who had started publication of International Council Correspondence (later known as Living Marxism and then as New Essays) in 1934. This was edited by the ex-KAPD member Paul Mattick, and its contributors included Rühle, Pannekoek and Karl Korsch. The group in America had some contact with the longest-surviving British council communist organisation, the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation. The APCF (formed in 1921) published a succession of newspapers, the best and last of which was Solidarity (1938-44). During the Second World War Anton Pannekoek wrote what is probably the best-known expression of council communist ideas, Workers' Councils, and he continued to contribute articles to the revolutionary press until his death in 1960. In the USA Paul Mattick published a number of books after the war, mainly concerned with a Marxist critique of bourgeois economics. His Anti-Bolshevik Communism (1978) collected together the fruits of a life-time's commitment to the revolutionary movement.[14]

Theoretical Questions

In examining the principal theoretical ideas of council communism, it is useful to bear in mind that council communism originally emerged in opposition to certain dominant trends within the existing workers' movement, in particular within Social Democracy and syndicalism. In fact, council communist ideas are perhaps most easily understood when approached from this angle.

In one sense, therefore, council communism can be seen as a critique of the use of parliament and trade unions as weapons in the class struggle. In his early writings, Anton Pannekoek did not reject these outright. His text on Tactical Differences Within the Workers' Movement (1909) argued that parliamentary debates and propaganda during election campaigns could be used to 'enlighten the workers about their class situation'. Trade-union organisation could impart a sense of discipline, solidarity, and collective class consciousness. Agitation for reforms could also conceivably increase workers' class consciousness and organisational strength.[15] However, this assessment of the worth of parliament, trade unionism and reformist agitation indicates the point of view from which the council communists evaluated all forms of struggle, a point of view which Pannekoek summed up in Workers' Councils:

"Here is the criterion for every form of action, for tactics and methods of fight, for forms of organisation: do they enhance the power of the workers? For the present, but, still more essential, for the future, for the supreme goal of annihilating capitalism?"[16]

As we have seen, in his polemic with Lenin, Herman Gorter had argued that all revolutionary tactics had to aim at increasing the power, autonomy and class consciousness of the workers. This was a point of view shared by Pannekoek, and it was on the basis of such criteria that council communists rejected the old methods of Social Democracy. Thus, in 1920 Pannekoek summed up his opposition to the use of parliament as follows:

"parliamentary activity is the paradigm of struggles in which only the leaders are actively involved and in which the masses themselves play a subordinate role. It consists in individual deputies carrying on the main battle; this is bound to arouse the illusion among the masses that others can do their fighting for them.

... the tactical problem is how we are to eradicate the traditional bourgeois mentality which paralyses the strength of the proletarian masses; everything which lends new power to the received conceptions is harmful. The most tenacious and intractable element in this mentality is dependence upon leaders, whom the masses leave to determine general questions and to manage their class affairs. Parliamentarianism inevitably tends to inhibit the autonomous activity by the masses that is necessary for revolution."[17]

Before the First World War, Pannekoek had also criticised trade-union activity by putting exactly the same emphasis on class consciousness and autonomous activity. Within the unions, he argued:

"Success or failure appears to depend on the personal qualities of the leaders, on their strategic skill, on their ability to read a situation correctly; while the enthusiasm and experience of the masses themselves are not regarded as active factors."[18]

"Success of mass movements depends on their capacity for autonomous action, their unquenchable ardour for battle, and the boldness and initiative of the masses. But it is precisely these qualities, the primary condition of the struggle for freedom that are repressed and annihilated by trade union discipline."[19]

As well as being a critique of parliamentary and trade-unionist methods from the point of view of working-class self-emancipation, council communism also emerged as an opposition to dominant ideas about what the overthrow of capitalism would involve, and how this would come about. In 1938 Pannekoek wrote:

"There are many who think of the proletarian revolution ... as a series of consecutive phases: first, conquest of government and instalment of a new government, then expropriation of the capitalist class by law, and then a new organisation of the process of production."[20]

This had been the dominant conception within the Social Democratic Second International. Similarly schematic conceptions of revolution also prevailed within the syndicalist movement, which looked, for the most part, to the gradual building up of industrial unions within capitalism, the overthrow of the ruling class by the General Strike, and then the reorganisation of society by the unions.

Council communists rejected these ideas. In Workers' Councils Pannekoek wrote that 'victory will not be one event, finishing the fight and introducing a then following period of reconstruction',[21] nor would it involve a series of 'different consecutive occurrences'.[22] In Pannekoek's view:

"The revolution by which the working class will win mastery and freedom, is not a single event of limited duration. It is a process of organisation, of self-education, in which the workers gradually, now in progressing rise, then in steps and leaps, develop the force to vanquish the bourgeoisie, to destroy capitalism, and to build up their new system of collective production."[23]

This idea of revolution as a process is central to council communism, and it leads us directly to a consideration of council communist ideas concerning class consciousness and organisation, which Pannekoek described in 1909 as 'those two pillars of working class power'.[24] In the council communists' view, revolution would involve the mass action of a vast majority of the working class. This was one of the principal points of divergence between the council communists and the Bolsheviks. The communist revolution wrote Pannekoek in 1938:

"cannot be attained by an ignorant mass, confident followers of a party presenting itself as an expert leadership. It can be attained only if the workers themselves, the entire class, understand the conditions, ways and means of their fight; when every man knows, from his own judgement, what to do. They must, every man of them, act themselves, decide themselves, hence think out and know for themselves."[25]

As this passage illustrates very well, mass action is inseparable from mass consciousness, and the council communists continually emphasised that widespread class consciousness was one of the essential conditions of working-class self-emancipation. This is not to say, however, that the council communists thought that widespread class consciousness was an essential precondition of revolution, if this is taken to mean that the majority of the working class must be fully class conscious before any revolutionary action can be attempted. The emphasis in council communism tended towards the reverse of such a relationship between class consciousness and class action. As Pannekoek put it, the struggles of the workers 'are not so much the result as the starting point of their spiritual development'.[26] In keeping with their idea of revolution as a process, the council communists argued that generalised, widespread class consciousness could only be a product of workers' active engagement in the class struggle itself. In her account of the 1905 Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg had argued that the 'high degree of political education, of class consciousness and organisation' which the working class needed if its struggles were to be successful could not be brought about 'by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution'.[27] Luxemburg's conception was shared by the council communists; in 1927 Pannekoek argued that class consciousness:

"is not learned from books, or through courses on theory and political formation, but through real life practice of the class struggle. It is true that prior to action, as well as after action, theory can be expressed in concepts that present organized knowledge; but, in order to develop in a real sense, this knowledge itself must be acquired in the hard school of experience, a harsh lived experience that shapes the mind in the full heat of combat ... It is only through the practice of its struggles against capitalism ... that the proletariat is transformed into a revolutionary class capable of conquering the capitalist system."[28]

In parallel with their view that widespread class consciousness would emerge from active mass involvement in the class struggle, rather than from 'simply converting people through propaganda to new political opinions',[29] the council communists also anticipated that working-class organisation, the second essential condition of the communist revolution, would arise in a similar way. The revolution could not be prepared in advance through gradually organising the working class in readiness for the single, decisive revolutionary act. In 1912 Anton Pannekoek criticised the attitude which held that revolution was 'an event in the future, a political apocalypse, and all we have to do meanwhile is prepare for the final show-down by gathering our strength and assembling and drilling our troops'.[30] Against this attitude he had put forward the view that:

"it is only by the struggle for power itself that the masses can be assembled, drilled and formed into an organisation capable of taking power."[31]

He repeated this view in Workers' Councils:

"The workers' forces are like an army that assembles during the battle! They must grow by the fight itself."[32]

Here Pannekoek's ideas echoed Rosa Luxemburg's formulation of the relationship between class struggle and organisation in The Mass Strike: 'the organisation does not supply the troops for the struggle, but the struggle, in an ever growing degree, supplies recruits for the organisation'.[33] In 1920 Pannekoek argued that mass revolutionary organisations (such as the 'One Big Union' or 'Industrial Unions' that syndicalists sought to create) could not be:

"set up within a still passive workforce in readiness for the revolutionary feeling of the workers to function within it in time to come: this new form of organisation can itself only be set up in the process of revolution, by workers making a revolutionary intervention."[34]

One example which Pannekoek used in Workers' Councils illustrates excellently the council communists' ideas about organisation. In the USA in the 1930s the presence of large numbers of unemployed (and therefore potential blackleg) workers meant that 'Any regular strike against wage cuttings was made impossible, because the shops after being left by the strikers, immediately would be flooded by the masses outside.' To overcome this problem, workers adopted the occupation tactic, i.e. going on strike, but remaining in the workplace. Workers also found that by occupying the workplace collectively, the striking workforce was no longer 'dispersed over the streets and homes ... separated into loose individuals', and that strikes no longer had to be 'accompanied by a continuous fight with the police over the use of streets and rooms for meeting'. As Pannekoek pointed out, the occupation tactic, which almost as a by-product increased the solidarity and active participation of those on strike, was not planned consciously in advance of the actual struggles: 'It was not invented by theory, it arose spontaneously out of practical needs; theory can do no more than afterwards explain its causes and consequences.'[35] Again, there is a continuity here between the ideas of the council communists and of Rosa Luxemburg, for in 1904 Luxemburg had argued that 'fighting tactics' were not 'invented' by revolutionaries, but were:

"the result of a progressive series of great creative acts in the course of the experimenting and often elemental class struggle ... the unconscious precedes the conscious, the logic of the objective historical process goes before the subjective logic of its spokesmen."[36]

Thus organisation and class consciousness are linked through a dialectical relationship. New forms of struggle and organisation arise spontaneously, in the sense that they are not planned consciously in advance, and they arise as a practical response to the problems faced by workers in the course of their struggles. Once these new forms have arisen, however, they can be made more widely known, and other groups of workers can begin to act on their example.

To sum up these ideas, from the council communist point of view the revolutionary process can be seen as one in which the working class continually adopts new ideas and new forms of organisation in response to the practical problems which confront it in the course of the class struggle. Once workers have taken up the fight against the attacks of the ruling class, the necessity to overcome the practical problems which crop up in the course of the fight pushes workers towards the realisation that existing forms of organisation are no longer adequate to their tasks, and that new forms have to be developed. In the course of an escalating struggle each practical step forward taken by the working class in serious pursuit of its demands leads in the direction of the overthrow of the existing system and the simultaneous reorganisation of society in the working class's own interests. As Pannekoek put it in 1920:

"without being communist by conviction, the masses are more and more following the path which communism shows them, for practical necessity is driving them in that direction".[37]

This is not a unilinear process; advances and retreats follow one another. None the less, the underlying tendency is towards communism, if for no other reason than that reliance on outmoded ideas and forms of organisation invariably leads to defeats, whereas the adoption of new ideas and new forms brings successes. In his book, Lenin as Philosopher (1938), Pannekoek based this conception on a fundamental 'theory of knowledge':

"On the basis of his experiences man derives generalisations and rules, natural laws, on which his expectations are based. They are generally correct, as is witnessed by his survival. Sometimes, however, false conclusions may be drawn, with failure and destruction in their wake. Life is a continuous process of learning, adaptation, development. Practice is the unsparing test of the correctness of thinking."[38]

Workers' Councils and Communism

This basic account of council communism can be completed with a description of the role of the workers' councils within council communist theory. As was the case with the council communists' ideas on class consciousness and organisation, their emphasis on workers' councils is also understood best in the context of the central concept of revolution as a process. If revolution is a process, rather than a series of consecutive but separate events, then it follows that there must be a single organisational form which can be used by the working class throughout all phases of the struggle. In a slightly schematic way, it could be said that since communism is based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution, the organisations which carry out the communist revolution must be ones which are suited to the realisation of this final goal. As Pannekoek wrote in 1938:

"Since the revolutionary class fight against the bourgeoisie and its organs is inseparable from the seizure of the productive apparatus by the workers and its application to production, the same organisation that unites the class for its fight also acts as the organisation of the new productive process."[39]

The organisations which the working class uses to fight against capitalism are therefore in a sense pre-figurative of the organisations which are used for the construction and administration of the new, communist society.

Council communists have commonly expected the workers' councils to emerge from mass strike movements where workers would take the conduct of their struggle into their own hands rather than leaving it up to existing organisations such as the trade unions. All strikers would meet in regular mass assemblies to discuss and organise the struggle, and to elect strike committees whose members would be delegates mandated by and answerable to the general assemblies and who could be recalled and replaced at any time. Where the strike centres were geographically dispersed, or as other sections of the working class joined the strike movement, delegates from the separate strike committees would meet in central bodies to unite and coordinate the struggle.

To the extent that it began to draw in wider and wider sections of the working class, the movement's demands would tend to outstrip their original starting-point, and tend towards the expression of the interests of the working class as a whole. At the same time, as a consequence of the interests of the entire working class being at stake, the general assemblies would be open to all those involved in the struggle- revolutionaries, families and relatives of strikers, inhabitants of the surrounding communities, the unemployed, and so on.

Within a fairly short space of time, the general assemblies and the local and central strike committees would be faced with tasks other than the pursuit of 'economic' demands. For example, they would perhaps have to publish bulletins or newspapers, in order to spread information, keep everyone fully informed about what was happening, and combat propaganda put out by the ruling class. They might also have to form militias in order to defend themselves against attacks from the armed forces of the ruling class, and to take the struggle onto the offensive. Thus through these and other necessary measures the strike committees would take on political functions, becoming in the process true workers' councils or soviets, organs of working-class power, rivalling the authority of the capitalist state.

Before long the workers would also be faced with the necessity of organising food and power supplies and other essential services, whose normal functioning would have been paralysed by the strike movement, in order to supply their own material needs. Where factories and workplaces were occupied by workers, to all intents and purposes the owning class would have been expropriated, and production and distribution would be restarted according to the needs of the workers. Here technical, social and political decisions would be on the agenda: methods of production, what to produce and in what quantities, the basis of distribution in the event of shortages and so on. The workers would express their interests in all these matters by exactly the same means they had been using throughout the struggle: through their mass assemblies and committees of recallable delegates. In other words, 'The workers' councils growing up as organs of fight will at the same time be organs of reconstruction.'[40]

It is not hard to see the connections between this brief scenario and the theme of 'non-market socialism', for in the situation described above all the essential features of a non-market society are present, albeit in the most rudimentary, embryonic form: the property of the capitalist minority has been expropriated and is now the common possession of the workers; the uses to which the means of production shall be put are no longer decided by the capitalist minority but are determined by democratic discussion and decision-making in which all workers have an equal chance of participation; the fruits of production are distributed according to needs expressed by the workers, rather than according to capitalist considerations of exchange, profit and the market. It would be the birth of a moneyless society based on common ownership and democratic control of the world's resources, i.e. non-market socialism or communism (both of which terms mean the same thing).

Council Communism and Councillism

The above sketch of the role of the workers' councils in the communist revolution is a suitable starting-point for an assessment of this current's strengths and weaknesses. Although the preceding account has been couched in speculative, 'would be' terms, this gives a misleading impression of council communism; council communists have always rooted their ideas firmly in the real experiences and struggles of the working class, and the councils themselves have arisen repeatedly in different periods and various circumstances during highpoints of the class struggle. Although not always conforming in every exact detail to the rough outline sketched above - the councils of the German Revolution in 1918, for example, arose from the apparent collapse of state power following Germany's defeat in the war, rather than from a mass strike movement - on several occasions the actions of the working class have followed the pattern described.

Even outside of the pantheon of 'highpoints' - such as Russia 1905 and 1917, and Germany 1918 - there have been other times when workers' struggles have shown a tendency towards the emergence of the council form, even if they have often ultimately failed to realise their potential. The mass strikes of July-August 1980 in Poland are a case in point. This massive struggle was sparked off by the state's announcement of increases in food prices. The Polish workers responded with demands for large wage rises, and since they were well aware that the trade unions were a part of the state, they took control of their actions themselves, meeting in mass assemblies to elect mandated, recallable delegates. Rather than fighting separately, the workers extended and centralised their fight. In several regions inter-factory strike committees (MKS) were formed, constituted by delegates from scores of different workplaces. As well as negotiating with the state, the MKS also set up groups of workers to defend occupied shipyards and factories, and organised the supply of food, power, and other essential services to a limited extent; in other words, they took on some political and social functions beyond the scope of their 'economic' origins.

Council communism therefore has the definite merit of being based on something which actually exists and which cannot be eradicated, short of revolution: the continuing struggle within capitalism between the capitalist and working classes. It does not regard revolution as something which occurs on a totally different plane from, quite unconnected to, the everyday struggle of the workers. It sees communism as a potential lying within the everyday struggle, which will emerge from this very struggle. For the council communists, therefore, the 'communist movement' is not just the few organised groups of workers who are already class conscious; the 'communist movement' is also the 'movement towards communism', the real underlying tendency of workers' struggles within capitalism, which is indeed what gives rise to organised groups of revolutionaries in the first place.

According to council communist theory, the workers' councils are revolutionary organisations. They are not permanent mass organisations of the working class. They emerge at times of intense political, social or economic crisis when workers find themselves compelled to take matters into their own hands. Their sole purpose is to negate the authority of one class and install the power of another over every aspect of society. If they do not succeed in this task, the councils usually disappear with the defeat of the movement which produces them; in other words, when their source and lifeblood, the initiative, vitality and creativity of the working class, is drained away. Any attempt to maintain a permanent existence outside revolutionary periods changes the councils' nature: either they take on non-revolutionary functions (for example, negotiating with the ruling class 'on behalf of' the workers) or else they turn into small propagandist groups defending a political programme.

The potential for the emergence of workers' councils would thus seem to be tied closely to a contingent circumstance: the breakdown of the existing political, social or economic 'order'. In 1920 Pannekoek wrote that 'Economic collapse is the most powerful spur to revolution.'[41] At that time, very few revolutionaries did not sincerely believe (for obvious reasons) that capitalism was going through its death throes and would shortly collapse virtually of its own accord. Pannekoek himself did not hold this view, but the relative importance which he attached to conditions of economic breakdown would seem to be accurate. In the concept of revolution as a process, it is the workers' pursuit of their demands which almost inexorably leads them to take measures which are revolutionary. This may be credible during periods of capitalist crisis when it appears as if the working class can only satisfy its most basic demands by completely reorganising society. The Polish workers' struggle, for example, originated from the working class's protests about its inability to obtain one of its most basic material needs – food – but this original issue was soon outstripped as the struggle began to challenge wider and wider aspects of the existing society. However, such deep crises are not a permanent feature of capitalism. There are also periods of boom and relative prosperity for sections of the working class. During such periods there would not appear to be the same potential for the logic of events to lead in a revolutionary direction, for the capitalist system has a greater capacity to satisfy the material demands which workers place upon it. At such times, the conditions which would give rise to a revolutionary struggle and workers' councils would appear to be practically non-existent.

This leads on to the issue of how advocates of the workers' councils should organise themselves during periods when the emergence of workers' councils and revolution do not appear to be immediate prospects. This issue has been a subject of endless debate amongst groups of revolutionaries standing within the council communist tradition. Of the 'theorists' of council communism mentioned so far, Otto Rühle and Herman Gorter held diametrically opposed views on the role of the council communist 'party', while Pannekoek occupied an intermediate position.

Rühle's views on political parties seem to have been shaped decisively by the experience of the mass parliamentary parties of the Second International. His break with the SPD, which he had once represented in the Reichstag, led to an indiscriminate rejection of all political parties. In Rühle's view, all political parties were, by definition, 'bourgeois'. In 1924 he wrote that, 'The concept of a party with a revolutionary character in the proletarian sense is nonsense.'[42] At the end of 1920, Rühle's sympathisers dissolved the sections of the KAPD to which they belonged into the local factory organisations (part the AAUD). Rühle opposed the separation of economic and political organisation, and favoured a single, 'unitary' revolutionary workplace organisation. To this end he was influential in the formation of a breakaway from the AAUD, called the General Workers' Union of Germany - Unitary Organisation (AAUD-E) in 1921.

The tendency represented by Rühle was opposed vigorously by Gorter, who wrote that 'the factory organisation is not sufficient for the great majority of the proletariat to become conscious, for it to achieve freedom and victory'.[43] The class situation of workers in individual factories might prevent them from having a sufficiently broad over-view of the entire political situation. It was therefore vital for the most advanced and lucid revolutionary workers to form themselves into a separate communist political party, to act as 'the one clear and unflinching compass towards communism' and to 'show the masses the way in all situations, not only in words, but also in deeds'.[44] This party would not seek to seize power itself; Gorter believed strongly in the workers' capacity for self-emancipation, and, indeed, for the reasons he stated in his 'Open Letter' to Lenin, argued that there could be no revolution in Western Europe otherwise. As more and more workers took up communist ideas, the working class, the factory organisations and the party would merge into one entity, united on the same level of class consciousness, and capable of restructuring society.

Pannekoek seems to have vacillated between these two positions without ever settling on one or the other. This is perhaps not surprising given the great length of his period of involvement in revolutionary politics, and the changing objective circumstances in which he put forward his ideas. In 1920 Pannekoek supported a conception of the role of the party similar to Gorter's:

"The function of a revolutionary party lies in propagating clear understanding in advance, so that throughout the masses there will be elements who know what must be done and who are capable of judging the situations for themselves. And in the course of the revolution the party has to raise the programme, slogans and directives which the spontaneously acting masses recognise as correct because they find that they express their own aims in their most adequate form and hence achieve greater clarity of purpose; it is thus that the party comes to lead the struggle."[45]

In the 1930s, however, Pannekoek swung in the opposite direction, echoing Rühle's equation of all political parties with parties like the SPD: 'The very expression "revolutionary party" is a contradiction in terms.'[46] At this stage Pannekoek defined parties as organisations which sought power for themselves; they were therefore incompatible with working-class self-emancipation. Revolutionaries with similar ideas might come together to discuss and propagandise, and to 'enlighten' the workers through open debate with other groups, but these could not be called 'parties' in the 'old' sense of power-seeking organisations.[47]

Later still, in 1947, Pannekoek seemed to return to his original position, assigning the same functions to organised groups as he did in the 1930s, but upgrading their importance in relation to the actions of the working class as a whole:

"The workers' councils are the organs for practical action and fight of the working class; to the parties falls the task of the building up of its spiritual power. Their work forms an indispensable part in the self-liberation of the working class."[48]

Council communists have therefore put forward a number of different views on the party issue, ranging from Rühle's rejection of all parties as inherently 'bourgeois' to Gorter's emphasis on the party's vital role as 'the brain of the proletariat, its eye, its steersman'.[49] In general, however, the council communists' chief focus on the workers' own councils has assigned the political party to a less central role. The councils are neither created nor controlled by any party. They are the spontaneous and independent creation of the working class in which all workers participate on equal terms.

If this emphasis on working-class autonomy and spontaneity is taken to an absurd extreme, however, it can lead to two dangers: first, the denial of all necessity or reason for any political organisation distinct from the majority of the working class, and, second, the fetishisation of any organisational form created spontaneously and autonomously by the working class. In combination, these dangers amount to what has become known as 'councillism', i.e. an empty, formalistic emphasis on workers' councils which completely neglects the communist content of the council communist equation.

It is certainly safe to say that capitalism could not be overthrown, nor could a communist society be brought into being, without the self-organised activity of the vast majority of the working class. But this in itself is not a sufficient condition for the establishment of communism. If the class struggle escalated to a situation in which workers began to take the organisation of society into their own hands, it would seem reasonable to imagine that this would also be accompanied by a corresponding awareness, at the level of political consciousness, of the momentous implications of their actions. But while this may seem likely, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that it is far from inevitable. Although there is rarely any absolute separation between form and content in the struggles of the working class, neither are there any cast-iron guarantees of the unity of form and content.

It is conceivable that workers could spontaneously take over the means of production at a time of political, social or economic crisis, only to establish a form of self-managed capitalism. ('Councillists', in fact, see nothing wrong in this and have applauded the occasions when this actually appears to have happened.) The essential additional condition which must accompany widespread working-class self-organisation is, therefore, widespread communist consciousness. It is from this fact that the vital need arises for council communists to form political organisations of the type described by Gorter and the early Pannekoek, agitating and propagandising on the basis of a commitment to the goal of a non-market socialist society as the only working-class alternative to the existing worldwide capitalist system.

Council communist intervention in the struggles of the working class - participating in, supporting and publicising them, and endeavouring to deepen and extend them - should be informed by the perspective of a commitment to nothing less than the final goal of communism. This means, if needs be, defending the final goal even in opposition to the immediate actions and concerns of the working class, as the KAPD clearly understood:

"in the course of the revolution the masses make inevitable vacillations. The communist, party, as the organisation of the most conscious elements, must itself strive not to succumb to these vacillations, but to put them right. Through the clarity and the principled nature of their slogans, the unity of words and deeds, their entry into the struggle, the correctness of their predictions, they must help the proletariat to quickly and completely overcome each vacillation. Through its entire activity the communist party must develop the class consciousness of the proletariat, even at the cost of being momentarily in opposition to the masses. Only thus will the party, in the course of the revolutionary struggle, win the trust of the masses, and accomplish a revolutionary education of the widest numbers."[50]

It was argued earlier that there is a dialectical relationship between organisation and class consciousness: that new forms of organisation do not arise as a result of shrewd forward planning, but once such new forms have arisen, their example can be spread and exert a conscious influence on the actions of workers in the struggles that take place afterwards. It is as a part of this dialectical process, as a link between the real struggles of the working class and its understanding of all the implications of these struggles, that organised groups of revolutionaries standing in the council communist tradition have their most positive and vital role to play.


[1] Anton Pannekoek, Workers' Councils (1941-2) (Cambridge, Mass.: Root and Branch, 1970) p. 83.

[2] See Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906) (London: Merlin, no date)

[3] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 83.

[4] Herman Gorter, The World Revolution (1918) (Glasgow; Socialist Information and Research Bureau (Scotland), 1920) p. 61.

[5] V. I. Lenin. Collected Works, vol. XXXI (Moscow: Progress, 1996) pp. 17ff.

[6] Gorter. The World Revolution, p. 51.

[7] Herman Gorter, 'Open Letter to Comrade Lenin', Workers' Dreadnought, 11 June 1921. The 'Open letter' (more commonly known nowadays as 'Reply to Lenin') was published in the Workers' Dreadnought, the newspaper of the left communists in Britain who were grouped around Sylvia Pankhurst, between 12 March and 11 June 1921.

[8] Ibid., 4 June 1921.

[9] The 'Manifesto of the Fourth Communist International' was published in the Workers' Dreadnought between 8 October and 10 December 1921.

[10] Anton Pannekoek, 'Sovjet-Rusland en het West-Europeesche Kommunisme', in De Nieuwe Tijd (1921), translated in S. Bricianer, Pannekoek and the Workers' Councils (Saint Louis: Telos, 1978) p. 229.

[11] Herman Goner, The Communist Workers' International (1923) (London; 1977) p. 4.

[12] Otto Rühle, From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution (1924) (Glasgow/London: Revolutionary Perspectives/Socialist Reproduction, 1974) p. 8.

[13] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 86.

[14] For a more detailed account of the German council communists during the 1920s and 1930s, and of the groups they influenced in other countries, see Denis Authier and Jean Barrot, La Gauche communiste en Allemagne (19I8-I921) (Paris: Payot, 1976), especially pp. 189-216 and 221-30.

[15] See Bricianer, 1978, pp. 73-117.

[16] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 104.

[17] Anton Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics (1920), in D. A. Smart, Pannekoek and Gorter's Marxism (London: Pluto, 1978) pp. 110-11 (emphasis in the original).

[18] Anton Pannekoek, Tactical Differences Within the Workers' Movement, in Bricianer, 1978, p. 105.

[19] Anton Pannekoek, 'Gewerkschaftsdisziplin', Bremer Burger-Zeitung (18 October 1913), translated in Bricianer, 1978, p. 132.

[20] Pannekoek, 'General Remarks on the Question of Organisation', in Living Marxism, IV: 5 (November 1938), reproduced in Bricianer, 1978, p. 273.

[21] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 54.

[22] Ibid., p. 108.

[23] Ibid., p. 91.

[24] Pannekoek, Tactical Differences Within the Worker' Movement, in Bricianer, 1978, p. 87.

[25] Anton Pannekoek, Lenin As Philosophy (1938) (London: Merlin, 1975) p. 103.

[26] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 98.

[27] Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, p. 32.

[28] Anton Pannekoek, 'Prinzip und Taktik', Proletarier, 7-8 (1927), translated in Bricianer, 1978, pp. 241-2.

[29] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 35.

[30] Pannekoek, 'Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactics', in Die Neue Zeit, XXXI (1912), translated in Smart, 1978, p. 52.

[31] Ibid., p. 52.

[32] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 91.

[33] Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, p. 62.

[34] Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, in Smart, 1978, p. 116.

[35] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 72.

[36] Rosa Luxemburg, 'Organisational Questions of the Proletarian Revolution' (originally titled 'Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy'), in Leninism or Marxism (Glasgow: Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, 1935) p. 14.

[37] Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, in Smart, 1978, p. 95.

[38] Pannekoek, Lenin As Philosopher, p. 17.

[39] Pannekoek, 'General Remarks on the Question of Organisation', in Bricianer. 1978, p. 273.

[40] Pannekoek. Workers' Councils, p. 54.

[41] Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, in Smart, 1978, p. 94.

[42] Rühle, From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution, p. 26.

[43] Herman Gorter, The Organisation of the Proletariat's Class Struggle (1921), in Smart, 1978, p. 159.

[44] KAPD, 'Theses on the Party' (July 1921), in Revolutionary Perspectives, 2 (no date) p. 72.

[45] Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, in Smart, 1978, pp. 100-1.

[46] Anton Pannekoek, 'Partei und Arbeiterklasse', Rätekorrespondenz, 15 (March 1936), translated in Bricianer, 1978, p. 265.

[47] See Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 101.

[48] Anton Pannekoek, 'Five Theses on the Fight of the Working Class Against Capitalism', in Southern Advocate for Workers' Councils (May 1947), quoted in Bricianer, 1978, p. 267.

[49] Gorter, The Organisation of the Proletariat's Class Struggle, in Smart, 1978, p. 163.

[50] KAPD, 'Theses on the Party', in Revolutionary Perspectives, 2, pp. 72-3.


darren p

15 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by darren p on May 11, 2009

The rest of the book this essay comes from "Non-market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" is well worth a read though unfortunately out of print.


11 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Reddebrek on December 4, 2012

This was a very informative piece, it answered a few lingering questions I had on the subject. I made a PDF and tried to attach it to the article like usual, but for some reason it won't accept the edit because another section which I didn't touch doesn't conform to the sites guidelines.

So if anyone wants a pdf version they can grab it here


11 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on December 4, 2012

Thanks for doing that! Yeah, I tried to edit this as well but it didn't work first because the alt text with the image was too long. So I just trimmed the text. If that happens again feel free to do it yourself. I attached your PDF to this one


11 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by petey on December 4, 2012

thanks reddebrek, i've downloaded and will read this weekend (i hope).


Submitted by Spassmaschine on June 24, 2009

In 1975 a pamphlet called Un Monde sans argent: le communisme (A World Without Money: Communism) was published in France. The authors argued for the immediate establishment of a moneyless, communist society:

Communism is the negation of capitalism. A movement produced by the development and very success of the capitalist mode of production which will end by overthrowing it and giving birth to a new kind of society. In place of a world based on the wages system and commodities must come into being a world where human activity will never again take the form of wage labour and where the products of such activity will no longer be objects of commerce…Communism does not overthrow capital in order to restore commodities to their original state. Commodity exchange is a link and a progress. But it is a link between antagonistic parts. It will disappear without there being a return to barter, that primitive form of exchange. Mankind will no longer be divided into opposed groups or into enterprises. It will organise itself to plan and use its common heritage and to share out duties and enjoyments. The logic of sharing will replace the logic of exchange.

Money will disappear. It is not a neutral instrument of measurement. It is the commodity in which all other commodities are reflected.

Gold, silver and diamonds will no longer have any value apart from that arising from their own utility. Gold can be reserved, in accordance with Lenin’s wish, for the construction of public lavatories.1

This pamphlet was published by a group which had been partly influenced by the situationists, as could be seen by their typically situationist name of The Friends of the 4 Million Young Workers. Above all, however, the group had been influenced in their ideas on a ‘world without money’ by the later writings of Amadeo Bordiga.


Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970) had been before the First World War an active and prominent member of the ‘intransigent’ wing of the Socialist Party of Italy (PSI). Bordiga and his comrades called themselves ‘intransigents’ because they opposed reformist trends within the PSI. Grappling with the problem of how to prevent a socialist party becoming reformist, Bordiga at first advocated expelling freemasons and other open reformists and the submission of the parliamentary group to the strict control of the party organisation outside parliament. Towards the end of the war he took this line of reasoning even further, arguing that, to avoid becoming reformist, the party should abstain from parliamentary activity altogether since it was seeking votes to get elected that obliged it to adapt itself to the reform-minded consciousness of the majority of workers. Eventually, Bordiga came to the view that the solution lay in the socialist party being an elite party, composed exclusively of socialists, which would not consider itself bound to take into account the views of the working class before taking action to try to achieve socialism. As this corresponded to a large extent to what Lenin and the Bolsheviks were saying (at least up until 1921), Bordiga became one of their partisans in the West.He was present at the Second Congress of the Third International (Comintern) in Moscow in 1920, when Lenin convinced him to abandon his abstentionist position in the interests of founding a communist party in Italy. Thus when the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was founded, as a split from the PSI, in January 1921 with Bordiga as its General Secretary, it did not advocate boycotting parliament and elections (although Bordiga himself always personally refused to be a parliamentary candidate). It did, however, remain thoroughly committed to the elitist conception of the party that Bordiga had developed.

For Bordiga the party was ‘the social brain’ of the working class whose task was not to seek majority support, but to concentrate on working for an armed insurrection, in the course of which it would seize power and then use it to abolish capitalism and impose a communist society by force. Bordiga identified ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and dictatorship of the party and argued that establishing its own dictatorship should be the party’s immediate and direct aim.

This position was accepted by the majority of the members of the PCI of the time, but it was to bring them into conflict with the Comintern when in 1921 the latter adopted a new tactic: that of the ‘united front’ with reformist organisations to fight for reforms and even to form a ‘workers’ government’. Bordiga regarded this as a reversion to the failed tactics which the pre-war Social Democrats had adopted and which had led to them becoming reformist.

Out of a regard for discipline, Bordiga and his comrades (who became known as the ‘Italian Left’) accepted the Comintern decision but were in an increasingly difficult position. When Bordiga was arrested in February 1923 on a trumped-up charge by the new Mussolini government, he had to give up his post as General Secretary of the PCI but, on his acquittal later that year, he decided not to reclaim it, thus implicitly accepting that he was now an oppositionist. In 1924 the Left lost control of the PCI to a pro-Stalin group whose leader, Gramsci, became the Party’s General Secretary in June. This loss of control was confirmed at the third Congress of the PCI, held in exile in Lyons in January 1926, at which the ‘theses’ drawn up by Bordiga and presented by the Left were rejected and those of the Stalinist leadership accepted.2 At the end of 1926 Bordiga was again arrested by Mussolini and sent to prison for three years. He was formally expelled from the PCI in 1930 for ‘Trotskyism’. On his release from prison he dropped out of all political activity until the fall of Mussolini in 1943.

The Italian Left, however, was not just a one-man show. In 1928 its members in exile in France and Belgium formed themselves into the ‘Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy’, which became in 1935 the ‘Italian Fraction of the Communist Left’. This change of name was a reflection of the Italian Left’s view that the PCI and the other Communist Parties had now become ‘counter-revolutionary’. The ‘Bordigists’, as they became known, with their theory of the elite nature of the party and their opposition to any form of ‘frontism’, earned themselves the reputation in the 1930s of being a super-Leninist sect.

During this period they were not of any particular interest to our theme of non-market socialism, since their views on post-capitalist society were the same as those of other Bolshevik groups: a period of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (to be exercised by the party) during which money, wages, markets and other capitalist economic categories would be gradually phased out, ending in the establishment of an international, moneyless, marketless society in the distant future. As a matter of fact, they – like the Trotskyists – held that Russia at this time was a degenerate, or degenerating, ‘Workers’ State’ rather than state capitalism. The Italian Left eventually came in the 1940s to recognise that Russia was state capitalist but those who argued this in the 1930s had to leave the group.3 With the fall of Mussolini in 1943, the Italian Left reemerged in Italy itself, as the ‘Internationalist Communist Party’ (PCInt) which succeeded in attracting a wider audience than ‘Left Communist’ groups have normally done. Bordiga himself also became politically active again.

Generally speaking, too much importance should not be attached to individuals, but the fact is that Bordiga’s reputation (founder-member and first General Secretary of the PCI, and member of the Executive Committee of the Comintern who had met, and argued with, Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev Bukharin, Stalin and others) meant that his views carried more weight than others and, in relation to our theme of non-market socialism, it so happened that he put particular emphasis on the non-commercial nature of socialism in contrast to the commercial, buying and selling nature of capitalism. He frequently described capitalist society as a ‘sewer’ because of the effect it had on human behaviour, and it was clearly a gut reaction against capitalism’s commercialism that was behind his political commitment.

Towards the end of the 1940s, as the wave of immediate post-war social unrest died down and the Italian Left returned to being a small sect, Bordiga came to argue that the period was no longer revolutionary and that all that revolutionaries could do in the circumstances was to preserve the revolutionary theory intact until the next revolutionary period came around. He thus set out consciously to ‘restore’, as he put it, revolutionary or communist or Marxist – he used all three terms interchangeably – theory. This involved him in writing and speaking on every aspect of theory – economics, the materialist conception of history, Russia, the national question and so on – but also on the nature of future society.

Before going on to examine in detail what Bordiga saw as being the essential features of future society, we need to complete our brief history of the Italian Left. Not all members of the PCInt agreed with Bordiga’s analysis of the period. Some wanted to continue agitating rather than to concentrate on theorising and in 1952 a split occurred, the followers of Bordiga leaving to form the ‘International Communist Party’. The names of the fortnightly publications of the two rival organisations, Battaglia comunista (Communist Battle) and Programma comunista (Communist Programme), rather neatly summed up the difference in their respective points of view.

Bordiga argued that ‘the communist programme’ had been laid down by Marx and Engels in 1848 and that the role of contemporary communists was simply to preserve and propagate it intact. Except on the key issues of the party and democracy, Bordiga did in fact stick very closely to the views of Marx and Engels, including their dubious positions such as support for national liberation movements and for the idea expressed in the Communist Manifesto for a period of state capitalist development between the capture of political power by the working class and the final establishment of socialism.4 His writings on economics and history were strictly Marxist, although those on politics reflected, even more forcefully than previously, his earlier views on the elitist nature and role of the party. He also brought out well the fact that, for Marx and Engels, socialist society involved the disappearance of money, buying and selling, wages, the market and all other exchange categories.

Bordiga pointed out that Marx had distinguished three stages after the capture of political power by the working class – transition stage, lower stage of communism, higher stage of communism – the last two of which were both to be non-commercial and non-Monetary:

The following schema can serve as a re-capitulation of our difficult subject… : Transition stage: the proletariat has conquered power and must withdraw legal protection from the non-proletarian classes, precisely because it cannot ‘abolish’ them in one go. This means that the proletarian state controls an economy of which a part, a decreasing part it is true, knows commercial distribution and even forms of private disposition of the product and the means of production (whether these be concentrated or scattered). Economy not yet socialist, a transitional economy.

Lower stage of communism: or, if you want, socialism. Society has already come to dispose of the products in general and allocates them to its members by means of a plan for ‘rationing’. Exchange and money have ceased to perform this function. It cannot be conceded to Stalin that simple exchange without money although still in accordance with the law of value could be a perspective for arriving at communism: on the contrary that would mean a sort of relapse into the barter system. The allocation of products starts rather from the centre and takes place without any equivalent in exchange. Example: when a malaria epidemic breaks out, quinine is distributed free in the area concerned, but in the proportion of a single tube per inhabitant.

In this stage, apart from the obligation to work continuing, the recording of the labour time supplied and the certificate attesting this are necessary, i.e. the famous labour voucher so much discussed for a hundred years. The voucher cannot be accumulated and any attempt to do so will involve the loss of a given amount of labour without restitution of any equivalent. The law of value is buried (Engels: society no longer attributes a ‘value’ to products).

Higher stage of communism which can also without hesitation be called full socialism. The productivity of labour has become such that neither constraint nor rationing are any longer necessary (except for pathological cases) as a means of avoiding the waste of products and human energy. Freedom for all to take for consumption. Example: the pharmacies distribute quinine freely and without restriction.5

In other words, for Bordiga, both stages of socialist or communist society (sometimes distinguished as ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’) were characterised by the absence of money, the market, and so on, the difference between them being that in the first stage labour-time vouchers would be used to allocate goods to people, while in full socialism this could be abandoned in favour of full free access. This view distinguished Bordiga from other Leninists, and especially the Trotskyists, who tended (and still tend) to telescope the first two stages and so have money and the other exchange categories surviving into ‘socialism’. Bordiga, as we shall see in the next section, would have none of this. No society in which money, buying and selling and the rest survived could be regarded as either socialist or communist; these exchange categories would die out before the socialist rather than the communist stage was reached.


Since Bordiga’s writings on the nature of future society are relatively unknown in the English language, in this section I shall summarise them using extensive quotations.6

Abolition of Property

Socialism, said Bordiga, involved:

the negation of all property, or of every subject of property (private individual, associated individuals, state, nation, and even society) as of every object of property (the land. . . the instruments of labour in general and the products of labour). [1958]7

This was because property was necessarily ‘private’ in the sense of excluding some – the non-owners – from the benefit of what was owned, which was precisely what socialism wanted to end:

Even from the point of view of terminology, property can only be conceived of as being private. For land this is more obvious in view of the fact that the flagrant aspect of this institution is a fence surrounding an estate which cannot be crossed without the consent of the owner. Private property means that the non-owner is deprived of the possibility of going into it. Whoever exercises this right, whether a private person or a group, the character of ‘deprivation’ remains for all the others. [1958]8


to define communism by ‘state property’ is a nonsense because the idea of ‘social property’ is itself one: when society as a whole becomes the master of its conditions of existence because it has ceased to be torn by internal antagonisms, it is not at all ‘social property’ that comes into being but the abolition of property as a fact and so as an idea. For how is property to be defined if not by the exclusion of the other from the use and enjoyment of the object of property? When there is no longer anyone to be excluded there is no longer any property nor any possible property-owners, ‘society’ less than any other [1967-8]9

The aim of socialism was to abolish property, not to change its form. Socialism was therefore to be defined not in terms of property in the means of production but in terms of social arrangements for using them:

When the socialist formulas are correct the word property is not to be found but possession, taking possession of the means of production, more precisely exercise of the control or management of the means of production, of which we still have to determine the precise subject. [1958]10

Bordiga went on to identify ‘society’ as this subject, so that he was in effect offering the following definition of socialism: a system of society based on the social control of the means of production.

Bordiga was adamant that socialism did not mean handing over control of the use – and thus effective ownership – of individual factories and other places of work either to the people working in them or to the people living in the area where those factories or places of work were situated. Commenting on a text by Marx, he wrote that socialist society was opposed:

to the attribution of the means of production (the land in our case) to particular social groups: fractions or particular classes of national society, local groups or enterprise groups, professional or trade union categories. [1958]11


The socialist programme insists that no branch of production should remain in the hands of one class only, even if it is that of the producers. Thus the land will not go to peasant associations, nor to the class of peasants, but to the whole of society. [1958]12

Demands such as ‘the factories for the workers’, ‘the mines for the miners’ and other such schemes for ‘workers’ control’ were not socialist demands, since a society in which they were realised would still be a property society in the sense that parts of the productive apparatus would be controlled by sections only of society to the exclusion of other sections. Socialism, Bordiga always insisted, meant the end of all sectional control over separate parts of the productive apparatus and the establishment of central social control over all the means of production.So, for Bordiga, in a socialist society there would be no property whatsoever in the means of production, not just of individuals or of groups of individuals, but also not of groups of producers nor of local or national communities either. The means of production would not be owned at all, but would simply be there to be used by the human race for its survival and continuation in the best possible conditions.

Scientific Administration of Social Affairs

The abolition of property meant at the same time the abolition of social classes and of the state. With the abolition of property there would no longer be any group of people in a privileged position as a result of controlling land or instruments of production as their ‘property’, and there would be no need for any social organ of coercion to protect the property of the property holders and to uphold their rule in society. Social classes and the political state would eventually, in the course of a more or less long transition period, give way to ‘the rational administration of human activities’. Thus Bordiga was able to write that ‘if one wants to give a definition of the socialist economy, it is a stateless economy’ [1956-7]. 13 He also wrote that, with the establishment of socialism, social organisation would have changed ‘from a social system of constraint on men (which it has been since prehistory) into a unitary and scientifically constructed administration of things and natural forces’ [1951].14 Bordiga saw the relationship between the party and the working class under capitalism as analogous with that of the brain to the other parts of a biological organism. Similarly, he envisaged the relationship between the scientifically organised central administration and the rest of socialist society in much the same terms. Indeed, Bordiga saw the administrative organ of socialist society as the direct descendant of the party in capitalist society:

When the international class war has been won and when states have died out, the party, which is born with the proletarian class and its doctrine, will not die out. In this distant time perhaps it will no longer be called a party, but it will live as the single organ, the ‘brain’ of a society freed from class forces. [1956-7]15 In the higher stage of communism, which will no longer know commodity production, nor money, nor nations, and which will also see the death of the state. . . the party. . . will still keep the role of depository and propagator of the social doctrine giving a general vision of the development of the relations between human society and material nature. [1951]16

Thus the scientifically organised central administration in socialism would be, in a very real sense for Bordiga – who was a firm partisan of the view that human society is best understood as being a kind of organism – the ‘social brain’, a specialised social organ charged with managing the general affairs of society. Though it would be acting in the interest of the social organism as a whole, it would not be elected by the individual members of socialist society, any more than the human brain is elected by the individual cells of the human body.

Quite apart from accepting this biological metaphor, Bordiga took the view that it would not be appropriate in socialism to have recourse to elections to fill administrative posts, nor to take social decisions by ‘the counting of heads’. For him, administrative posts were best filled by those most capable of doing the job, not by the most popular; similarly, what was the best solution to a particular problem was something to be determined scientifically by experts in the field and not a matter of majority opinion to be settled by a vote.

What was important for Bordiga was not so much the personnel who would perform socialist administrative functions as the fact that there would need to be an administrative organ in socialism functioning as a social brain and that this organ would be organised on a ‘scientific’ rather than a ‘democratic’ basis.

Bordiga’s conception of socialism was ‘non-democratic’ rather than ‘undemocratic’. He was in effect defining socialism as not ‘the democratic social control of the means of production by and in the interest of society as a whole’, but simply as ‘the social control of the means of production in the interest of society as a whole’.

End of the Enterprise, the Market and Money

The establishment of socialism, as the central social control of all the means of production, meant the end of the enterprise which, as a productive unit or group of separate productive units controlled by a single separate capital, Bordiga identified as the key economic institution of capitalism. In fact, the enterprise was the specific form which property took in capitalist society; it was a form of property in the sense that it represented the control of parts of the social productive apparatus, and of the products of those parts, by sections only of society.Where control over the means of production was divided amongst enterprises, the links that had to be made between productive units to enable them to function as a productive system could only be commercial. Enterprises were linked to one another by contracts to buy each other’s products. Thus the existence of enterprises implied the existence of buying and selling, of markets, of money and indeed of the whole commercial economy that was capitalism. Bordiga drew from his analysis of the enterprise-capitalist system the following conclusion:

Thus, the socialist demand proposes to overthrow not only private property law and economy, but at the same time the market economy and the enterprise economy. It is only when society is moving beyond these three features of present-day economy – private ownership of the products, monetary market, organisation of production by enterprises – that it will be possible to say that it is going towards socialism. [1948]17

And he added:

Capitalism exists as long as products are brought to the market or are in any case ‘accounted’ to the credit of the enterprise, considered as a distinct economic islet, even a very large one, while the remuneration of labour is debited to it. [1948]18

The establishment of socialism, by centralising control over all the means of production into the hands of society, meant the abolition not only of enterprises but also of buying and selling, of money, of wages, of the market and of all the other categories of an exchange economy. On this point Bordiga was very clear and very consistent over the years:

Modern commercial economy means monetary economy; thus the socialist anti-commercial demand involves equally the abolition of money as the means of exchange and also as the means of practical formation of capital. [1948]19 The capitalist mode of production… will have disappeared from the moment when there will no longer be any exchange values, nor commodities, i.e. when there will no longer be commercial exchange of consumer objects, nor any money [1952]20

Socialism… is the economy which no longer knows markets, circulation, money [1956-7]21

The communist revolution is the death of commercialism. [1958]22

Socialism… is the economy without exchange values (in the lower and higher stage). [1958]23

it will be a question of abolishing all exchange value and all production of values by labour. [1958]24

By the same token, any society or scheme for social reconstruction which retained money, wages and the market could not be regarded as socialist:

where I find exchange, competition, capital, money, etc., there I have the right to say: non-socialist, bourgeois economic form. [1959]25 a society based on wages paid in money is a non-communist, private property society, and let us adds the corollary: even if there are no landowners or capital-owners. [1959]26

Wages are not the only positive economic phenomenon which allows us to state that the fall of the capitalist form has not yet been reached. We could express this same concept by saying that socialism does not yet exist when a value is attributed to labour; and it is the same when any other commodity is attributed an exchange value. [1959]27

where there is money, there is neither socialism nor communism, as there isn’t, and by a long way, in Russia. [1959]28

Bordiga was thus a vigorous critic of all forms of so-called ‘market socialism’, whether this took the form of the state replacing private capitalists but retaining the enterprise form (as in Russia) or of various schemes for ‘workers’ control’ of enterprises. Since criticism of Russia as non-socialist and state capitalist is now widely accepted, I will only quote Bordiga on why ‘workers’ control’ of enterprises is not socialist:

The replacement of the boss and the bourgeois management by some ‘factory council’ elected as democratically as you want, in other words the replacement of the capitalist enterprise by an enterprise of a cooperative type, would not advance the necessary transformation of the economy by a single step. It is known that the attempts of workers’ producer cooperatives in the last century, even if they did have the merit of showing that one could do without the social person of the capitalist, were a resounding failure because they were not able to stand up to the bourgeois competition. It would be no different if the competition took place no longer between bosses’ enterprises and workers’ cooperatives but between as many workers’ cooperatives as there were enterprises. One of two things would happen: either the workers’ cooperatives would try to operate other than as capitalist enterprises and as all the other conditions would remain bourgeois (links by the intermediary of the market) they would be swept aside; or, if they intended to survive, they would only be able to operate as capitalist enterprises with a money capital, wages, profits, a depreciation fund and capital investments, credit and interest etc. The competition between them would not be abolished, so neither would the system of commercial contracts, nor civil law and the state institution needed to uphold it. [1967-8]29

Hence Bordiga’s unambiguous conclusion:

A system of commercial exchange between free and autonomous enterprises such as might be supported by cooperators, syndicalists, libertarians, has no historical possibility nor any socialist character. It is even a step backward compared with numerous sectors already organised on a general scale in the bourgeois epoch, as required by technology and the complexity of social life. Socialism, or communism, means that the whole of society is a single association of producers and consumers. [1952]30

Planned Production of Useful Things

In socialism, said Bordiga, with the disappearance of money and exchange value, all that would be produced would be useful things directly as such:

In Antiquity weavers produced the coat without producing the exchange value of the coat, adds Marx. And we, we add, absolutely sure: in communist society coats like everything else will be produced without producing exchange value. [1958)31

This contrasts strikingly with capitalism:

The bourgeois economy is a double economy The bourgeois individual is not a man but a business. We want to destroy all businesses. We want to abolish the double economy in order to found the single economy which history already knew at the time when the caveman, with his hands as his only tool, went out to collect as many coconuts as he had companions in the cave. [1948]32

In other words, capitalism is concerned with profit-and-loss accounting, as its aim is to produce monetary profits, but socialism would simply be concerned with producing what people need.

Deciding what people need was, for Bordiga, one of the tasks of the central administration, which, having decided this in the light of what a scientific assessment of the facts had showed was needed to ensure the survival of the human race in the best conditions, would then have to arrange for the goods to satisfy the needs of humankind to be produced and made available for individual human beings to consume.

To do this, the central administration would manage all the means of production – the whole already-socialised productive system that socialism would inherit from capitalism – as a single unit, drawing up a plan to use them rationally to produce what it had been decided was needed. In this sense Bordiga was an advocate of ‘central planning’, but, for him, these plans would be drawn up exclusively in physical terms (and not in both physical and monetary terms as in state capitalist Russia and similar countries):

The basis of the future plans of the socialist economy. . . is that they are established outside the commercial atmosphere And the monetary means. Lenin called this kind of plan ‘material plans’, one could even say ‘physical plans’. [1956-7]33 We affirm that the first socialist plan will be seen when its part expressed in the monetary unit is eliminated. [1956-7]34

a really socialist accounting, in other words with projects referring to physical quantities of objects and of material forces without mentioning monetary equivalents. [1956-7]35

Bukharin himself had said, quite correctly: ‘at the moment that the means of production are socialised, the value form falls, and the only permitted accounting is that in nature (or physical)’. [1956-7]36

The rational relationship between man and nature will be born from the moment when these accounts and these calculations concerning projects are no longer done in money but in physical and human magnitudes. [1963]37

To those who said that such planning would be ‘bureaucratic’, Bordiga replied:

The socialist economy kills bureaucracy not because it is applied from the base or from the centre, but because it is the first economy which goes beyond the muck of monetary accounting and of the commercial budget system. [1956-7]38

To illustrate what he meant about plans in socialism being drawn up exclusively in physical quantities, Bordiga used the building industry as an example:

One can give an idea of them by taking the example of a building project, accompanied by a forecast of ‘needs for materials’ and an idea of the number of work-days of an organised team, without making an ‘estimate’ but linking this work to the national plan concerning labour power, production and available goods. [1956-7]39

In other words, plans in socialism would be drawn up as a list of the materials and labour needed to produce the various useful things that it had been decided were required to satisfy human needs.

Bordiga included labour, expressed as so many work-days, as one of the physical quantities in which the production plans of socialist society would be drawn up, but this was not the same as advocating the use of ‘labour-time’ as a general equivalent – a general measure of economic value – in place of money. Bordiga was in fact opposed to this. As far as he was concerned, it would not be necessary in socialism to evaluate all goods according to some universal unit of economic measurement; this was only necessary in societies where goods were exchanged, precisely as a means of establishing exchange ratios, but would not be needed in a society which only produced use-values directly as such:

If there is accumulation in socialism, it will take the form of an accumulation of objects, of materials useful to human needs, and these will have no need to appear alternatively as money, nor to undergo the application of a ‘moneymeter’ allowing them to be measured and compared according to a ‘general equivalent’. Thus these objects will no longer be commodities and will no longer be defined except by their quantitative physical magnitude and by their qualitative nature, what the economists, and Marx also, for explanatory purposes, express by the term usevalue. [1956-7]40 In post-bourgeois society, therefore, it will not be a question of ‘measuring value by labour-time’, as fools believe, but of finishing altogether with the measurement of value. [1957]41

In fact the whole revolutionary rebirth would collapse if each object were not to lose its character of being a commodity, and if labour were not to cease to be the measure of ‘exchange value’, another form which, at the same time as measurement by money, will have to die with the capitalist mode. [1958]42

So Bordiga saw production in socialist society as being organised in accordance with a plan, established by the central administration, and drawn up and executed exclusively in physical quantities of useful things without having recourse to any general equivalent, neither money nor labour-time.

Bordiga expected that in socialism the level of production would eventually become relatively stable (which would make planning a matter of routine). It might even drop as compared with capitalism:

It can be established that the rhythms of accumulation in socialism, measured in material quantities like tonnes of steel and kilowatts of energy, will be slow and little above that of the growth of the population. Compared with developed capitalist societies, the rational planning of consumption in quantity and quality and the abolition of the enormous mass of anti-social consumption (from the cigarette to aircraft carriers) will probably bring about a long period of fall in the indexes of production and thus, if we take up the old terms, a disinvestment and a disaccumulation. [1956-7]43

Among the other matters which Bordiga saw the central administration of world socialism having to plan for, in the interest of the human race as an animal species, was a stable population and a more even spread of the population throughout the globe (disappearance of the distinction between town and countryside).

Free Distribution and Social Consumption

In socialism, said Bordiga, the central administration, acting on behalf of and in the best interest of human society as a whole, would not only decide what should be produced; it would also decide how what had been produced should be used. Those at workplace level who had produced goods would thus have no say as to how those goods should be used – since if they did, this would mean they would have a property right over them and then society would not be socialism – but would immediately make them available to society to use as it decided:

Society is immediately the owner of any product of labour supplied by each of its components, who have no right over what they have produced. [1956-7]44 The producers’ associations of future society, whose membership will normally be renewed many times over the period of a man’s life, will be associations having as their only aim the function, the act, the joy of producing. Not only to the extent that they will be following a common rational plan and to the extent that society will be transformed into ONE producers’ association. .. , but above all to the extent that these technical, non-economic groupings of producers will place the whole of their product at the disposal of society and of its central plan for consumption. [1958]45

The central administration would then make available for individual consumption the consumer goods that had been placed by their producers (or rather by those engaged in the last stage of their production) at its disposal:

The administration, disposing at a given moment of all the goods that have been produced, retains when it comes to distribution the part which corresponds to general services and leaves the rest for daily individual consumption. [1956-7]46

Only goods that could be consumed more or less rapidly would be made available for individual consumption; all other goods, including for instance houses, would remain social, to be used in accordance with the arrangements society would make for their use:

In socialist society only the immediately consumable part of the social product which is due to him will be made available to the producer. [1956-7]47 we will speak about the worker having ‘at his disposition’ what he needs to provide for his immediate’ consumption, immediate in the sense that consumer goods are not stocked but serve to cover in an extremely short period of time the whole range of his needs. [1956-7]48

Thus individuals in socialism would not own consumer goods but would simply… consume them. As to the ideal of ‘the family home’, Bordiga regarded this as a stunted capitalist aspiration; indeed he denounced the family as a home-owning enterprise and capitalist consumption unit – a ‘business’ – which, like all other enterprises, would disappear in socialism, since all human beings, including all children, would have become members of a single human family. In socialism, houses would not be owned, but simply occupied by those who lived in them.

Naturally, there being no money, the goods which the central administration made available for individual consumption would be available for individuals to take freely without charge:

In the socialist form production remains social, and thus there is no ownership by anyone of the instruments of production, including the land and fixed installations. In this society there will be no individual appropriation even for consumption; distribution will be social and for social purposes.Social consumption differs from individual consumption in that the physical attribution of consumer goods does not take place through the intermediary of commercial purchase and with the monetary means.

When society satisfies all the needs of its members which do not conflict with the best interests of its development, independently of the greater or lesser contribution they have made to social labour, all personal property ceases and with it its measure, i.e. value and its symbol, money [1958] 49

Bordiga preferred, as here, to speak of consumption being social in socialism rather than individual. This was because for him, although individuals would be free – at least in fully developed socialism – to choose which particular goods to take from the range of goods made available for individual consumption, they would not be free to choose which goods were made available. That would be a social decision made by the central administration in the light of what science indicated was best for the survival of the human race as an animal species. In other words, individuals would be consuming not so much for their own personal benefit as for the benefit of the whole species.

The point Bordiga was trying to make here was that not even in full socialism would individuals be able to consume whatever they might feel they wanted to; they would only be able to consume whatever society had decided should be available for individual consumption. Thus, to use an example Bordiga gave, people would only be able to smoke cigarettes if socialist society decided to produce them (which Bordiga thought unlikely); or people would only be able to visit the moon if socialist society decided to devote resources to provide facilities for all who wanted to go there.


The description of future society given here evidently earns Bordiga a place amongst those advocating a non-market society to replace capitalism, but, in view of the ‘non-democratic’ character of the administrative structure which he envisaged future society as having, the question of the extent to which it can be regarded as socialist must be seriously faced. If democracy is simply defined as political democracy, that is, as a form of state, then clearly socialism, as a stateless society, would be non-democratic. But Bordiga was saying much more than this. He was saying that in socialism the mass of the people would not participate at all in the administration of social affairs; there would be no elections, nor would decisions be made by majority vote. On the contrary, all important social decisions would be made by a central administration which would be the direct successor of the vanguard party.

Bordiga does not seem to have realised the extent to which restricting decision-making to a minority within society, even to an elite of well-meaning social and scientific experts, conflicted with his definition of socialism as the abolition of property. For property, as Bordiga well realised, is a social fact, not a legal state; it exists when control over the use of some thing is de facto in the hands of some individual or some group to the exclusion of all other individuals and groups. Clearly, this situation would still apply in Bordiga’s socialism, with the elite central administration as the owners (de facto controllers) of all the means of production, since the power to decide how to use them would be exclusively theirs.

If, however, we ignore this aspect of his views, then Bordiga can be said to have given a very clear description of socialist/communist society. In particular, he demonstrated with great clarity:

(a) that it would not be based on state (or nationalised), or even on common (or social), property, but on the complete absence of any exclusive use-controlling rights over the means of production and their products; and(b) that it would involve the complete disappearance of buying and selling, of money and monetary calculation, of wages and of all other exchange categories, including enterprises as autonomous economic and accounting units.

The technocratic aspects of Bordiga’s ‘description of communism’ were ignored by most of those influenced by him, including to a large extent the members of the group with which he was associated (the International Communist Party). The important point is that, thanks in part to the writings of Bordiga, the realisation that socialism is neither the state ownership nor the workers’ control (through factory committees, workers’ councils and the like) of enterprises engaged in profit-and-loss accounting (whether in money or labour-time) has been encouraged. Conversely, the idea that socialism must be a moneyless, wageless society has been, and still is, propagated by a number of groups and individuals influenced by Bordiga’s views on this, particularly in France, Italy and Spain.

The fact that the idea of such a society as the only solution to the problems currently facing humankind in general, and wage- and salary-earners in particular; should have arisen, and be propagated, in these countries quite independently of the anglo-saxon groups putting forward this idea (which are discussed in Chapter 4), is confirmation of the view that the spread of non-market socialist ideas does not depend exclusively on the efforts of one or other particular socialist sect but is generated by capitalism itself.


1. Un Monde sans argent: le communisme (Paris: Les Amis de 4 Millions de Jeunes Travailleurs, 1975) pp.1 and 8.

2. For this period of Bordiga’s political activity, see Andreina De Clementi, Amadeo Bordiga (Turin: Einaudi, 1971). In English there is Earlene Craver, ‘The Rediscovery of Amadeo Bordiga’, Survey XX (spring/summer 1974). Otherwise Bordiga is just a footnote reference in the many books on Gramsci. See also ‘Bordiga and the Idea of Socialism’, Socialist Standard, February 1982, and ‘Notes on Trotsky, Pannekoek and Bordiga’, in Jean Barrot and Francois Martin, Eclipse and Reemergence of the Communist Movement (Detroit: Black and Red, 1974) pp. 119-31. [Antagonism note: See Note on Pannekoek and Bordiga in the revised 1997 edition of « Eclipse… », published by Antagonism Press, BM Makhno, London WC1N 3XX]

3. Bilan, the monthly theoretical bulletin of the Italian Left during the period 1933-8, continually referred to Russia as ‘a degenerate Workers’ State’. For a ‘state capitalist’ breakaway which occurred in 1933, see La Gauche communiste d’Italie (Brussels: International Communist Current, 1983) p.84. This pamphlet, based on a university thesis by one of the Belgian members of the ICC, is a good and generally objective history of the Italian Left. [Antagonism note: Now published by the ICC in English as The Italian Communist Left 1926-45 ]

4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. VI (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976) pp. 504-5.

5. Amadeo Bordiga, ‘Dialogue avec Staline’ (1952), quoted in Jacques Camatte, Bordiga et la passion du communisme: Textes essentiels de Bordiga et reperes biographiques (Paris: Spartacus, 1974) pp. 18-19 (emphases in the original).

6. translated from the French, since French translations of Bordiga’s writings are more readily available to me than the Italian originals. The date references after quotations refer to the Italian original, not the French translation.

7. Amadeo Bordiga, ‘Le Programme revolutionnaire de la societe communiste elimine toute forme de propriete de la terre, des installations productives et des produits du travail’, in Camatte, 1974, p.54 (emphases in the original).

8. Ibid, p.54 (emphases iii the original).

9. Bilan d’une revolution. Special Number of Programme Communiste, 40– 41-42 (Paris: International Communist Party, October l967-June 1968) p. 78.

10. Bordiga, ‘Le Programme revolutionnaire’, in Camatte, 1974, pp.46-7

11. Ibid, p.60.

12. Ibid, p.50 (emphasis in the original).

13. Amadeo Bordiga, Structure economique et social de la Russie d’aujourdhui (Paris: Editions de l’Oubli, 1975) p.310.

14. Amadeo Bordiga, ‘Dictature proletarienne et parti de classe’, in Textes fondamentaux de la gauche communiste in La Revolution Commurtiste, 3 (Brussels: 1984) pp.67-8.

15. Bordiga, 1975, p.95 (emphasis in the original).

16. Bordiga, ‘Dictature proletarienne’, in Textes fundaentaux, 1984, p. 70.

17 Extract from Amadeo Bordiga, Propriete et Capital (1948), in Socialisme proletarien contre socialisme petitbourgeois. Supplement to Le Proletaire, 312 (Paris: 1980) p. 24.

18. Ibid, p. 24.

19. Ibid, p.22.

20. Amadeo Bordiga, Russie et revolution dans la theorie marxrste (Paris: Spartacus, 1978) p. 140.

21. Bordiga, 1975, p.315.

22. Bordiga, ‘Le Programme revolutionnaire’, in Camatte, 1974, p.69.

23. Amadeo Bordiga, ‘Le Contenu original du programme communiste est l’abolition de l’individu comme sujet economique, detenteur de droits et acteur de l’histoire humaine’, in Camatte, 1974, p.104.

24. Ibid, p.105.

25. Amadeo Bordiga, ‘Commentaires des manuscrits de 1844’, in Camatte, 1974, p. 134.

26. Ibid, p.130.

27 Ibid, p. 134 (emphases in the original).

28. Amadeo Bordiga, ‘Tables immuables de la theorie communiste de parti’, in Camatte, 1974, p. 179.

29. Bilan d’une revolution, 1967-8, pp.75-6.

30. Bordiga, 1978, p. 172.

31. Bordiga, ‘Le Contenu original du programme communiste’, in Camatte, 1974, p. 104.

32. Bordiga, ‘Socialisme proletarien’, p.24.

33. Bordiga, 1975, p.202.

34. Ibid, p. 203.

35. Ibid, p. 140.

36. Ibid, p. 205.

37 Amadeo Bordiga, ‘La Legende du Piave’, quoted in Camatte, 1974, p.23 (emphases in the original).

38. Bordiga, 1975, p. 340.

39. Ibid, p. 140.

40. Ibid, pp.191-2 (emphases in the original).

41. Amadeo Bordiga in Il programma communista, 20 (1957), quoted in Jacques Camatte, Capital et Gemeinwesen (Paris: Spartacus, 1976) p. 213.

42. Bordiga, ‘Le Programme revolutionnaire’, in Camatte, 1974, pp. 70- 1.

43: Bordiga, 1975, p. 192.

44. Ibid, p.166.

45. Bordiga, ‘Le Contenu original du programme communiste’, in Camatte, 1974, pp.87-8 (emphases in the original).

46. Bordiga, 1975, p.318.

47 Ibid, p.294.

48. Ibid, p.291.

49. Bordiga, ‘Le Contenu original du programme communiste’, in Camatte, 1974, pp. 79-80 (emphasis in the original).


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