Introduction to Workers' Councils - Peter Rachleff

Introduction to Anton Pannekoek's Workers' Councils, written in 1975 by US libertarian socialist collective Root & Branch.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on December 18, 2021

The following text, Anton Pannekoek's Workers' Councils, attempts to present the dynamics of the revolutionary process, and a general picture of the socialist society which may result from revolution. Pannekoek's conception of socialism differs fundamentally from the notions of the future society that have dominated official “Marxist” discussions in the 20th century. Social-Democratic and Leninist theories of revolution have shared the assumption that the working class cannot emancipate itself and manage a future society by itself, without the leadership of professional revolutionary politicians. From this point of view, the Party was to educate the workers to the virtue of socialism, until with the workers' backing it could seize state power and reorganize production and distribution in the “interest” of the workers. Workers' Councils, however, is little concerned with the role professional revolutionaries can play in the class struggle. Instead, it concentrates on the working class' attempts to organize itself, first of all in its conflict with the employers and then, with the development of the struggle, in the construction of a system of social production run by the workers themselves.

The entirely new social, economic, and political system which is here projected differs fundamentally from both of the systems which divide up the world today—from capitalism on the one hand, and from state-controlled systems (like those of Russia, China, Cuba, etc.) on the other. In capitalism, decisions as to what is produced, how much, and how are made by the owners of businesses, as they compete with each other for profit. The actual producers, whose labor is the source of business's profits, have no say over the production system either as a whole or in their places of work.

In the state-run system, centralized planning takes the place of competition between economic units. But since the planning process is monopolized by the Party bureaucrat­ controlled state, the workers again have no control over production or distribution. They are exploited by one employer, the state, who appropriates their surplus labor-time to use as it sees fit. In contrast, Pannekoek conceived of socialism as a regime of direct control over production by those who actually do the work, unmediated by any organizations or institutions with an independent power (army, police) of their own. There must of course be organized coordination linking units of production (and other areas of social life), but these must be assured by organizations such as factory committees and councils which are directly controlled by all who work together.

Far from being dreamed up in the realms of utopian theory, these ideas are based on an analysis of workers' struggles in the first half of this century, struggles in which the author took an active part. The wide gap between Social Democratic and Leninist theories and the ideas presented in Workers Councils developed in the course of Pannekoek's participation in both forms of organization. Born in a rural town in Holland in 1873, Anton Pennekoek studied mathematics at the University of Leyden and earned a doctorate in astronomy there in 1902. He made good use of his scientific training in his approach to society and the revolutionary process; in his approach, he attempted to think on the basis of real events and their dynamics, and not to force them into à priori frameworks.

In 1901, Pannekoek joined the Dutch Social Democratic Party (SDAP), and immediately became a member of a small left-wing group within the Party, which included Herm­ann Gorter and Henriette Roland-Holst. The SDAP was tightly controlled by its leadership, and Pannekoek's group frequently came into conflict with the party chieftain, Troelstra. More seriously, the Party leadership time and time again acted to restrain the militance of groups of workers. Pan­nekoek and his comrades were both impressed with the ability of the workers to organize themselves and act on their own, and dismayed by the Party's opposition to such attempts. In 1907, the group set up its own journal, De Tribune, and in 1909 left the SDAP to form their own party.

Pannekoek had left Holland in 1906 to teach Marxist theory at the school run by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin, although he remained in close contact with his Dutch comrades and often contributed to De Tribune. Threatened with deportation by the Prussian police, he left Berlin after one semester and traveled around Germany as a journalist, until 1909 when he settled in Bremen, where he worked with a left splinter group within the SPD. In Bremen he came into contact with a large industrial working class which was extremely active politically; but here again he saw the dominant organization (the SPD) function to hold back radical workers. He realized that for these "socialist" parties independent working class activity was a threat to their own existence, so that they acted to protect the Party rather than to further the development of the revolutionary consciousness which, Pannekoek argued, can only grow out of the experience of the class struggle itself. He began to develop the idea that it is through mass direct actions in pursuit of their interests that workers could develop the solidarity and understanding necessary to transform society, without having formulated the goal of socialism beforehand. But despite his stress on mass actions rather than on the parliamentary activity of the Party, Pannekoek remained an active member of the SPD, expressing his views in debates with Kautsky and Bernstein in the Party journals. He still believed that socialism meant putting “the power of the state . . . at the disposal of the working class ...." (2)

The failure of the international working class movement to prevent the outbreak of the First World War caused Pan­nekoek to reconsider many of his earlier ideas. In a series of articles written between 1914 and 1917, he undertook to criticize the weaknesses of the old form of organization embodied in the social democratic parties of the Second International, and sought to lay the theoretical foundations of a new form of organization which would be based on mass action and be willing to undertake and support revolutionary struggle. By 1917, in calling for the formation of a new International, Pannekoek found himself allied with Lenin and the Zimmerwald leftists, who sought to “turn the imperialist war into civil war.”

In February of that year the Russian Revolution broke out and organs of working-class self-emancipation appeared in Russia in the form of Soviets and factory committees. (3)

Like revolutionaries throughout Europe, Pannekoek was an immediate supporter of the revolution and an avid student of the soviet (council) and factory committee movement. He saw these organs both as instruments of struggle against the old society and as the basis for the construction of the new. The German revolution of 1918 confirmed the central importance of workers' committees and councils for proletarian revolution. In Germany, workers' councils functioned primarily as a means of political expression for the war-weary working class, who used the social power to end the war and replace the monarchy with a Republic. That the workers then gave up their power to an alliance of liberal and socialist parties, who were only too willing to oversee the restoration of bourgeois power, did not detract from the significance of workers' councils as a means of genuine self-organization and self-expression, although its role as organs of self-emancipation was limited by the German working class's failure to move politically beyond support for an SPD-led government.

Initially, Pannekoek and his comrades (Herman Gorter, H, Canne Meijer, Henriette Roland-Holst, and others) supported the Bolsheviks in Russia, overlooking the authoritarianism of Lenin's What is to be Done? in the face of the new slogan of “All Power to the Soviets.” In early 1920 Pannekoek published a book (Weltrevolution und Kom­munistiche Taktic) in which he suggested that communist revolutions would first appear in underdeveloped countries, and supported Lenin against Rosa Luxemburg on the question of national self-determination. Pannekoek and his comrades joined with the Bolsheviks in stressing the necessity of forming a third, Communist International.

Disillusionment quickly developed among the leftists, however. Events within Russia—e.g. the destruction of the factory committees—along with Bolshevik manipulation of the new International pushed the leftists to a more critical stance vis-à-vis the new Russian regime. Surrounded by hostile capitalist powers, the Bolsheviks sought to gather immediate support for their new state wherever possible. While entering into diplomatic negotiations with capitalist states, they urged the western European Communist parties to adopt methods of activity (parliamentarism and trade unionism) that many militants had already learned to reject, in order to gain as massive a following as they could. In 1920 Lenin published his Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, which chastised the leftist militants, and effectively threw them out of the International. The leftists replied as splits appeared within the European parties over the question of adherence to the ideological and organizational requirements of the Russian-controlled Inter­national. Behind the tactical questions lay the fundamental issue, whether the need for social revolution in Europe could be subordinated to the national interests of the new Bolshevik state.

In the process of renewed analysis of the Russian Revolution, Pannekoek rejected his earlier optimistic evaluation of the possibilities for communist revolutions in underdeveloped countries. He recognized the limitations resulting from Russia's economic backwardness; for a revolution with a working class minority could not lead to a society controlled by workers. The course of events in Russia, demonstrated once again both the tendency of a party which saw its own domination of society as the heart of the revolution, to restrain the revolutionary activity of the workers; and the ability of working people to evolve their own organs of struggle. Much of the remainder of Pannekoek's work, and that of his comrades, was devoted to deepening and elaborating these two lessons.

Pannekoek's thought on these matters is summed up in this book, which was largely written during the German occupation of Holland in World War II. Although its political reference is specifically to post-war Europe, its breadth of vision makes it relevant to all industrialized countries today. The value of the general analysis has been borne out by such subsequent events as the development of workers' struggles in Hungary in 1956, France in 1968, and the wave of wildcat strikes in the United States and every country of Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In our view, Workers' Councils represents the best available starting-point for thinking about the problems of transforming present-day society. But on some important questions, of course, Workers' Councils has little to say, and in other areas the analysis is weak or incorrect.

Pannekoek's entire analysis is based on the circumstance that capitalism as a system is prone to periods of severe crisis. His own explanation of this phenomenon is open to a good deal of question. As Karl Marx showed, the cause of crisis must be looked for in the inability of the system to produce sufficient profit for continuous expansion, and not in a difficulty in realizing profit due to a lack of effective demand as Pannekoek thought. This question, at any rate, has little significance for Pannekoek's analysis of the actual development of the class struggle. Whatever the causes of the business depressions which give capitalism its cyclical character, Workers' Councils helps us understand the social forces which may be set in motion in a crisis situation.

There are weaknesses in Pannekoek's discussion of the revolutionary process. He utilized the notion of a relatively homogeneous working class, a category perhaps more applicable to the Western Europe of his day than to the United States. In reality there are important differences of condition and experience within the working class—among the races, between the sexes, between unionized and non­-unionized workers, and among the various levels of job hierarchies. Similarly, there is a division between those who have jobs and those who are unemployed, which has led for instance to the antagonism felt by employed workers to welfare recipients. The problems raised by the necessity for those who under present conditions lead relatively isolated existences, e.g., housewives who do not work outside the home, to participate in the collective transformation of society should not be ignored.

The discussion of the new society is also overly abstract. Pannekoek focuses on the positive features of the various revolutionary upsurges of the first half of the twentieth century and the negative role played by organized parties. He gives only a sketch of the means by which workers could coordinate society. The problems of carrying on regional, national, and international planning through democratic structures in a complex, technologically advanced, and highly interdependent society have yet to be seriously dealt with.

Problems of space have limited us to including only Parts I and II of the original text, which contain Pannekoek's theory of workers' self-organization. The last three parts, applying this theory to the wartime and postwar periods, while valuable are of less general importance. We hope that it will be possible to publish the integral work in the near future. The translation is by the author; we have thought it best to leave Pannekoek's occasionally eccentric use of English as he wrote it, with the exception of some outright solecisms (e.g. "wild strike" for "wildcat strike") and needlessly obscure constructions. Material in brackets is by the editors.

1 Cf. Paul Mattick, "Anton Pannekoek," New Politics I: 2 (1961), and Serge Bricianer, Pannekoek at les Conseils Ouvriers (Paris: 1969), a selection of texts with historical and critical commentary.

2 New Review, 16 January 1913. At this time Pannekoek was an important influence on the American socialist movement, contributing many articles to the socialist New Review.

3 See “Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution,” this volume.

Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements (1975), pp. 377-383.