Not so long ago the experience of the council communist movement was almost discussed by the Anarchist Federation. A short history of the council communist movement in Britain appeared in our first Educational Bulletin (The People Awake) but we never really got around to discussing it. Which is a shame. The current discussions around the role of revolutionary organisations and the activity of revolutionaries has got me thinking about the legacy of the council communists, positive and negative.
First the (fucking long) historical bit.
The text 'The Impotence of the Revolutionary Group', which featured in issue 5 of our Educational Bulletin Big Flame, I think, needs to be put in historical context. It is a particularly sad example of the thinking of a certain current within the German-Dutch left during the 1930s. It's central argument, that revolutionary minorities are at worst an impediment or at best irrelevant to the working class revolution, was one defended by some of those who had experienced the period of revolutionary struggle, particularly in Germany between 191 8 and 1923. We would do well to consider what they had recently come through.
They had witnessed the Wilhelmshaven revolt, the Berlin insurrection, the emergence of workers councils and the Bavarian council republic, they had witnessed the Red Army of the Ruhr and the ill-fated March Action of 1921. They had seen working class power on the agenda ... and then off again.
They had seen the emergence and decline of revolutionary workers' organisations such as the Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and General Workers' Union (AAUD) which numbered hundreds of thousands. With the ebbing of the revolutionary tide these organisations shrank, some more rapidly than others. By the time the Nazis took power they had lost their 'mass' nature. After the Nazis took power the militants of these organisations suffered severe repression. Many militants of the German left were to die in concentration camps and prisons. Many more died a political 'death' demoralised by the depth of the defeat of the working class.
Like all other political groups under the National Socialists they had their newspapers (such as the twice weekly Kommunistische Arbeiterzeitung), offices, meeting halls etc. closed down. Their entire political and cultural life was effectively extinguished. Although they had a quite clear theoretical understanding of what Fascism was, this did not make them immune from the psychological effect of their own eclipse. It should be remembered that it was a period of only 10 years between the ultimate defeat of the German revolution and the Nazi electoral victory. Try to imagine a similar time-period, say between the Poll Tax riots and today. Not very long at all.
Since 1922 the council communist movement had attempted to understand why the 1918-1922 revolutionary period had failed to produce a revolutionary outcome. From late 1920 part of the council communist movement had exhibited a very spontaneist tendency. In 1921 this constituted itself as the German General Workers' Union - Unitary organisation (AAUDE) whose main theorists were Franz Pfemfert and Otto Ruhle. The AAUD-E rejected the KAPD's role as a party separate from the factory organisations and attempted to develop an organisation that was both political and economic. This actually brought it quite close to anarcho-syndicalism and the AAUD-E had a close working relationship with the Free Workers' Union of Germany (FAUD) and other anarchists. The famous dictum 'The Revolution is not a party affair' was the motto of the AAUD-E and they defended the idea that all parties were inevitably bourgeois and an organisational form that was a product of capitalism and could not be utilised by the working class. In 1924 Ruhle wrote 'The concept of a party with a revolutionary character in a proletarian sense is nonsense.' (From The Bourgeois to The Proletarian Revolution).
During the some period (1921-24) a similar development took place within the FAUD itself and militants around the journal Die Shopfung took a trajectory which ended up with a rejection of all organisation beyond the local and, inevitably, their ultimate dissolution.
Hard as Steel
Unsurprisingly, this anti-partyist perspective was not shared by either KAPD (there were actually two after a split in 1922) who argued for a "party of a new type" that would consist only of the most dedicated communists but would be against the 'leader' politics which had characterised both the social democratic and new 'communist' parties. This party, 'tough as steel, clear as crystal' (Herman Gorter 1921), would provide the political impetus (and collective leadership) of the 'industrial wing', the AAUD. Like the rest of the council communist movement it had shrank considerably between 1923 and 1933 but, generally, it continued to defend the notion of a specific communist political organisation carrying out specific functions in relation to the wider working class and, to the best of its limited capacities attempted to realise that function.
In 1931, parts of what was left of the AAUD and the AAUD-E united into something called the KAUD (Communist Workers Union) which was a more explicitly communist factory-based activist organisation, somewhere between the KAPD and the Ruhle-type of council communism. Earlier, in 1927, the Group of International Communists (GIK) emerged, with an agenda much more theory-orientated. In 1933 it was a member of the GIK, Marinus van der Lubbe, who would burn down the Reichstag
Two years later a council communist party, the United Workers Party emerged in the United States, with Paul Mattick (an active KAPDist in Germany in the 1920s) as its main theoretician. The UWP published International Council Correspondence, which carried articles by council communists from all points of the compass. The UWP disappeared sometime in the 1930s but the magazine continued, later changing its name to Living Marxism. What was left of the German/Dutch council communist movement didn't survive the second world war.
So much (for) history!
So much for the history. Now about the article by Sam Moss, which, I would guess, is actually from the period prior to the UWP's dissolution (Moss says that 'From time to time members argue ... as a revolutionary organisation we should deepen the class war.'). It reads like a call for that dissolution.
Moss's anti-partyism is exceptionally virulent, but it should be borne in mind that Anton Pannekoek, to name just one council communist thinker, who had defended a perspective close (though not identical) to that of Gorter in the 1920s became during the 1930s highly critical of 'partyism' before adopting an intermediate position post-1945.
What seems to underline 'The Impotence of the Revolutionary Groups' is a terrible cynicism. Moss dismisses revolutionary workers as "deviations from the working class" who "because of unique circumstances in their individual lives have diverged from the usual course of development". Not only this but whenever they get the opportunity to "rise" in society they generally "abandon their revolutionary objectives'. Hmmm. This sounds like the sort of pub conversation you might have with a dyed in the wool arsehole who thinks socialists etc. are freaks who simply didn't 'make it' and wouldn't be socialists if they had. Coming out of the mouth of a revolutionary it's a bit odd.
Moss suggests that the very fact that revolutionary organisations are allowed to exist is proof of their impotence. He claims that revolutionary organisations have done nothing to affect the course of history. But revolutionary organisations have come under the most severe repression; patently the ruling class felt that they were having a detrimental effect, that they might potentially "affect the course of history" and acted accordingly.
Moss says that the class struggle isn't waged through revolutionary organisations. This is generally true, but he then says that it is waged in the factories and through the unions. He (sarcastically?) recommends that "we" (ie.revolutionaries) should concentrate on the factory and/or the unions if we want to be involved in the class struggle. The factoryist bit is typical of the historic period, but the suggestion that the class struggle is only manifested through the unions seems in contradiction with the general drift of the article, particularly as a critique of the unions was a distinguishing feature of the council communists. But Moss continues, regardless of whether we do this or not "...It Is obvious we cannot affect the course of events." Oh, well then, that's okay, as long as we know...
Moss attacks the council communists, acknowledging that whilst they are ideologically nonvanguardist, they are practically no different from any other group (I suspect he was thinking about the Leninist groups). He claims that if the council communists were able to organise workers in a certain "industrial area" they would then be taking the 'initiative" out of the hands of the workers. When the revolution does come, Moss declares, the council communists will be "submerged within it, not as functioning organisations, but as individual workers." So, therefore, organisations of revolutionaries are a waste of time? Yes, it would appear so, but they are also "inevitable" as they fulfil a "personal need" for the would-be revolutionaries. And, Moss suggests, this fact "establishes the basis for the prediction that the masses will ... band together out of the same urgency." Only, out of material necessity rather than ideological belief. Hmmm...
Actually, Moss's opposition to "small radical groups" is ideological as he sees in it "the objective end to all political leadership". But what actually underlies his confidence that the revolution is coming regardless is that the "difficulties of capitalism are progressively increasing" and is pushing the working class towards their final objective. Essentially Moss looked around, saw what a sorry state of political defeat the working class was in (including the atrophy of the revolutionary organisations that the earlier struggles of the workers had given rise to) and put his money on the (almost religious i.e. an act of faith) belief that the system was heading for an almighty crash. Actually the system was heading for an almighty war and subsequent destruction of capital (human and other) prior to a massive post-war restructuring and almost 75 years later, what do you know, the system is still going.
We should be extremely wary of any crisis theories which posit an inevitable collapse of capitalism. Without doubt capitalism is prone to crises, indeed it lurches from one crisis to another, but let's not fool ourselves that this objective factor is enough to bring about the 'final crisis' of capitalism; its revolutionary destruction and the realisation of communism. The subjective factor, that is the consciousness of the working class and its dynamic in relation to the (organised) revolutionary minorities within it is indispensable. The AF surely stands for the very opposite of the essentially defeatist quietism of the variety of councillism exhibited by the likes of Moss (as our Revolutionary Manifesto for the Millennium coherently outlines)? And we must be wary of those elements who are its inheritors. Similarly, in what are dark times we should surely oppose cynicism (without succumbing to unfounded bouts of hyper-optimism either!) wherever we find it.
D (AF Central Scotland). [AF Internal Bulletin January 2001]
A reply to D (by Pete):
This is a reply to D's critique of an article by Sam Moss from the US in the 1930's. Most of Moss's article, "The Impotence of the Revolutionary Group" appeared in a "Big Flame" bulletin. I do not have this Big Flame to hand so I am not sure exactly how much of the article was reprinted in it. I had not read this article before it appeared in Big Flame. The first thing I was struck by was its clarity and honesty, it was clearly written by someone who had experience and was thinking hard about his and others' roles as revolutionaries, and in relation to class struggle. I was pleased to come across something so thoughtful. However, I did not entirely agree with all his conclusions.
When I read D's critique of the article I was surprised by the apparent hostility with which D treated Moss and his article (D describes Moss's "anti-partyism" as "extremely virulent"; he says Moss has "a terrible cynicism"; he says, "Coming out of the mouth of a revolutionary it's a bit odd"; Moss "declares" this, attacks" that, "states" the other, "dismisses" something else, etc). Obviously, from a distance of over sixty years Sam Moss has really got D's back up.
I wasn't going to reply to D's critique because I thought it wasn't worthwhile, but then I was perusing the Collective Action Notes web-site and decided to read Moss's article again. I think a few things need to be clarified.
D says: "Moss dismisses revolutionary workers as 'deviations from the working class' who 'because of unique circumstances in their individual lives have diverged from the usual course of development' ".
What Moss actually says is this:
The reason for the apparent difference of objectives between the revolutionary groups and the working class is easy to understand. The working class, concerned only with the needs of the moment and in general content with its social status, reflects the level of capitalist culture - a culture that is "for the enormous majority a mere training to act as a machine". The revolutionists, however, are so to speak deviations from the working class; they are the by-products of capitalism; they represent isolated cases of workers who, because of unique circumstances in their individual lives, have diverged from the usual course of development in that, though born of wage slaves, they have acquired an intellectual interest, that has availed itself of the existing educational possibilities.
This is not being "dismissive", this is a thoughtful analysis of what Moss has seen around him, and for me it rings perfectly true.
D goes on to say: "Not only this but [Moss says] whenever they get the opportunity to 'rise' in society they generally 'abandon their revolutionary objectives'. Hmmm. This sounds like the sort of pub conversation you might have with a dyed in the wool arsehole who thinks socialists etc. are freaks who simply didn't 'make it' and wouldn't be socialists if they had. Coming out of the mouth of a revolutionary it's a bit odd."
Moss says this:
But whenever they have the chance to rise within the existing society they, with rare exceptions, do not hesitate to abandon their revolutionary objectives. And when they do so, they offer sincere and sound logic for their apostasy, for, "Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man's ideas change with every change in his material existence?"
Moss may indeed be exhibiting some cynicism here, the sort of cynicism I have towards those who leave behind their radicalism and become firm bulwarks of society, people like Danny Cohn Bendit spring to mind, and I'm sure you can think of others who have let their ideas change by changing their "material existence". But of course some radicals do not leave behind their radicalism as they progress through life, although they may materially leave the class they started out in. Thus some radicals I know have managerial or professional jobs and I consider this takes them out of the working class, in the material sense. This does not however stop these radicals being pro-working class in their time spent not actually working (at work they are performing tasks which are middle class). Thus a teacher of children (manager) will only be able to perform middle class functions while actually working, but may show pro-working class and revolutionary credentials when not, say after work, or during workplace disputes. Thus it is that the AF, and any pro-working class group, can and does have professionals and managers in its ranks.
Moss says this about why working class people become revolutionary outside of revolutionary times:
Though of these ["isolated workers who have acquired an intellectual interest" remember this was written in the thirties], many have succeeded in rising into the petty-bourgeoisie, others, whose careers in this direction were blocked by circumstances have remained within the working class as intellectual workers. Dissatisfied with their social status as appendages to machines, they, unable to rise within the system, rise against it. Quite frequently cut off from association with their fellow workers on the job, who do not share their radical views, they unite with other rebellious intellectual workers and with other unsuccessful careerists of other strata of society, into organizations of changing society.
This does not strike me as the sort of analysis that makes Moss comparable to a "dyed in the wool arsehole" who pontificates in a pub, as D suggests. It strikes me as the analysis of someone who, although they may not have covered every possibility, has looked openly at the situation.
D disagrees with Moss's argument that the proof of the impotence and ineffectiveness of revolutionary groups lies in the fact that they suffer no repression and are tolerated by the State. If you look at Britain or the US now, or the US in the thirties, when Moss wrote his article, then Moss's case is fairly persuasive. What he has failed to do is give any indication of when revolutionary groups may not be tolerated. Maybe he thought this was unnecessary. D says that revolutionary groups "have come under the most severe repression", but doesn't say when this has happened. The fact is that revolutionary organisations come under attack by the State when the working class is in a generally combative mode, during periods of high class struggle, or during the lead up, or in the middle, of a revolutionary situation. The reasons for this are various. It surprises me that D does not look any more deeply into what Moss has said, and then only offers a half-rebuke that is not qualified. Thoughtful critiques of things, such as Moss's article (I don't agree with it all, by the way), require thoughtful replies. It's not about winning points, it's about getting to the bottom of things. And not being afraid to adjust our thinking.
D says: "Moss says that the class struggle isn't waged through the revolutionary organisations. This is generally true..."
"Generally true"? When is it not true, D? Unless you mean things like the struggles between, for example, the Bolshevik leadership and the Workers Opposition in Russia in the early 1920's? That is, a struggle between a left grouping of the Bolsheviks who were more in tune with what the working class wanted/needed, and the Bolshevik leadership who had taken on the task of defending capitalism? Is that what you suggest by class struggle happening "through the revolutionary organisation"? (Honest question.)
D says: "He (sarcastically?) recommends that 'we' (i.e., revolutionaries) should concentrate on the factories and/or the unions if we want to be involved in the class struggle."
Why do you suggest Moss is being sarcastic here? You need to elaborate points like this in order to make yourself clear, I think. However, I think that you have pointed to the most obvious weakness in Moss's analysis here. He is not clear about the conflict that exists between discontented workers and the unions to which they may belong. He says the unions are pursuing class struggle, when in fact, as we know, it is the case that the unions are pushed to claim certain concessions from the bosses by the discontented membership. And the unions do this not because they are for the class struggle, but because they want to retain control of their membership and thereby maintain or increase their power within the capitalist State.
I agree with Moss that if we want to engage in class struggle, as opposed to mainly engaging with the "politicised layer" of society, that we should try to get closer to the point of production. But I do not see one area of activity as superior to the other, just different areas. The AF needs to realise on which terrain it operates in this regard.
Moss also says:
To become active in the class struggle means, then to become as conservative as the large body of workers. In other words, as soon as we enter the class struggle we can contribute nothing special to it.
I disagree with this. As individuals, or from our groups, we can assist class struggle from the perspective of people who retain a history and knowledge of it, and therefore can offer good advice, and example, to fellow militants in certain situations.
D seems to disagree with Moss when he says that the masses will band together for revolutionary objectives because of material necessity rather than ideological belief, well, D says, "Hmmm..." to this idea. Later D says that, "Without doubt capitalism is prone to crises, indeed it lurches from one crisis to another, but let's not fool ourselves that this objective factor is enough to bring about the 'final crisis' of capitalism; it's revolutionary destruction and the realisation of communism. The subjective factor, that is the consciousness of the working class and its dynamic in relation to the (organised) revolutionary minorities [my emphasis] within it is indispensable".
This goes to the heart of part of the discussion I have been having with the AF for the last few months, which is probably why D has chosen to critique Moss, and probably why the Moss article appeared in Big Flame in the first place.
My view is that the working class (in large numbers) only become "conscious" through events. But "consciousness" can happen very quickly and it is while this consciousness is forming that revolutionaries will become part of the process that takes class struggle beyond class struggle and into revolution (see all my other writing on the subject). The view of the AF is that workers will become "conscious" (in large enough numbers) before a major escalation of class struggle, and the path to revolution will be cut as much by the already existent revolutionary will of proletarians as by the collapsing of society. That is, the AF believes that if it works hard enough the AF can help create this mass of revolutionary proletarians in the present circumstances in Britain. In my previous texts, in the IB for example, I have shown why I do not think that this is possible, and why history shows this cunning plan to be flawed. The ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class, it is only when the ruling class has begun to lose its foothold, its credibility, its power, that other ideas are able to become part of a mass "consciousness". Look at any country which has a large movement of people who are unhappy with the way things are and you will see a State that is in some degree of trouble, or crisis. An "opposition" movement of people in Britain is not going to happen until the British State meets with real economic crisis, and acts in ways which only put peoples' backs up even more. The AF thinks that a real movement can be built before these circumstances occur.
I have been trying previously to describe what sort of actual activity that the AF, as an organisation, is involved in. From what I have seen the AF has no basis or project for trying to connect and involve itself with the working class, all its activity is geared to placing itself in a politicised milieu. This is not a criticism, just a fact as I see it. As I have said above, there are different areas that we can work in. What disturbs me is that the AF won't accept this fact, and believes that it is reaching out, in however small a way, to the wider working class. It criticises the "left" but then operates largely in the same style as the left. It says it has a duty to get out to the wider working class, but does nothing to achieve this. The AF resides in a politicised anarchist leftist eco ghetto, and it doesn't want to lose its place in it. This ghetto is made up of many genuine people who may be open to new ideas, it is worthwhile engaging with these people in a rigorous and consistent way, in order to try to break them from ideas which only serve capitalism. The AF is afraid to do this because it may frighten away potential members. Thus the AF consigns itself to weakness in its theory and analysis, and a membership that could almost think anything (as long as they put up stickers they'll do). The AF needs either to get to grips with these problems and sort them out, or, if it doesn't want to then it may as well take even more cues from the SWP and try to beat them at their own game. Most likely things will just continue as they are though, until all the older members retire. If things turned out like this then I could imagine the AF being carried on by a few of the younger members for a while, but it would now be possible to ditch stuff like the Aims and Principles and the literature would become a lot closer in content and style to more rough-hewn anarchist zines. OK this is just idle thinking, but it is a mildly interesting projection, and one that others must have considered, probably in greater detail. I am not saying that the development I have imagined would be a bad one or anything like that, I'm just musing.
Back to Moss.
D criticises Moss's apocalyptic view of developments in capitalism.
We realize that the difficulties of capitalism are progressively increasing and that the means of satisfying even the immediate wants of the working class are continuously diminishing. (First quote)
Moss contradicts himself here, I think. In the first paragraph of his article he says:
As long as a relatively large majority of the American working class maintain the living conditions to which they are accustomed, and have the leisure to follow their pursuits, such as baseball and movies, they are generally well content, and they are grateful to the system that makes these things possible. (Second quote)
Maybe he was thinking more globally, but the fact is that he is right in the second quote but wrong in the first quote. To me the first quote smacks of someone who, after having written something thoughtful and human, has suddenly lapsed back into a reduced political language. Probably, as D implies, because he adhered to a theory of the decadence of capitalism. The AF as an organisation does not hold with this theory, though I do not know if it has been discussed by the membership. Interestingly, the Situationists held with the decadence of capitalism theory, but these days it doesn't have much credibility in our circles.
D says: "In what are dark times we should surely oppose cynicism (without succumbing to unfounded bouts of hyper-optimism either!) wherever we find it". This reflects Moss's final words in his article, he already answers D's description of these times as "dark":
But to all radical organizations, if their groups are defeated, and if their groups are dying, then all is dying.
But, D misses the opportunity to reply to this interesting point. Moss is saying that the radical organisation will describe "the times" in just the way that D has done! And Moss is implying that such a description bears little actual relation to the facts beyond the life of the small group. D doesn't address this part of Moss's article... Here is the last paragraph of the article again in full:
The view of the revolutionary ineffectiveness of small groups is accounted a pessimistic one by all the revolutionary organizations. What if this view does indicate the inevitability of revolution? What if it does point to the objective end of a pre-established leadership of the masses, and to the eventual end of all exploitation? The radical groups are not happy with this picture. They derive no pleasure from the prospect of a future where they have no more significance than their fellow human beings, and they condemn a view of such a future as a philosophy of defeatism. But, actually we have spoken only of the futility of small radical groups; we have been quite optimistic as to the future of the workers. But to all radical organizations, if their groups are defeated, and if their groups are dying, then all is dying. In such pronouncements therefore they reveal the true motivation for their rebellion and the true character of their organizations. We, however, should find no cause for despair in the impotence of these groups. Rather we should behold in it reason for optimism regarding the future of the workers. For in this very atrophy of all groups that would lead the masses out of capitalism into another society we are seeing for the first time in history the objective end to all political leadership and to the division of society into economic and political categories.
An "end to all political leadership"? Yes, this current has grown stronger during this century. But I think Moss is over-optimistic. He may have been comparing the small groups of his day with, for example, political parties such as the SPD in pre-WW1 Germany. He may have seen the fact that there was nothing so radical and large in existence now (1930's, in Germany and the US at least) as a positive sign that the workers would not find themselves ham-strung again by the machinations of such Parties. He would have been misunderstanding then, why a group such as the SPD came into existence and grew and why small communist groups of the thirties existed and what function they had. But I don't know, he doesn't make this last line clear enough for me to understand fully.
Anyway, I thought it was a shame that D addressed Moss's article from such a defensive and thoughtless perspective.
Pete Post 18th January 2001