4a. The theory of council communism: The Heritage

Submitted by libcom on July 30, 2005

Criticisms of present-day organized communism and of traditional working-class organizations have turned into a renewed critique of the exploitative society (i.e. of all existing socio-economic régimes). This critique has appreciably widened the classical perspective of Marxist analysis. To paraphrase the language of strategy, it may be said that a multiplicity of new fronts have been opened. Economic alienation is not denied : the situation of the producer separated from his product is still seen as absolute alienation. At the same time, however, this critique pointed out that the worker was the victim of a multitude of different kinds of alienation in the course of his everyday life, in his daily behaviour and activities. According to this view, the family is a primary alienating structure to the extent that it reproduces the authoritarian and hierarchical model of world society; family socialization already moulds the child's psyche so that he will adapt to the role of operative reserved for him. School and the entire pedagogic tradition continue the work of adapting the child, draining him of his spontaneity, his curiosity, his natural desire to create. All of sexual morality, taboos and prohibitions also tend towards the annihilation of the free individual personality. Once the child grows up, he will have imposed on him the role of consumer, worker, pensioner, etc. In every aspect of his life he will be separated both from his desires and their true satisfaction.

In order for him to recover his essential humanity, the individual must not simply become conscious of the economic and political reality of alienation; he must abolish separation in every sphere of life by becoming his own master. On the collective level, this means assuming control of every sector of social life. The revolutionary aspirations of leftism quite naturally flow out into universal workers' control.

How are these aspirations to be realized ? What mode of organization will, or ought, to permit workers' control at every level ?

Marxism was embodied by the Party, even in Marx's own lifetime. Marx and Engels did not contest either the need for a party or the need for leadership (even the Communist League had a Central Committee). However, neither Marx nor Engels produced a theory of organization. It was Lenin's theory (set out in its purest form in his What is to be Done ? of 1902) which provided the most complete version of the Marxist viewpoint on the question of organization. The whole of Lenin's conception is founded on the assertion that the only consciousness acquired spontaneously by the working class is awareness of its economic and corporate interests. In order to acquire a socialist consciousness (i.e. an awareness of the need for revolution), it must rely on those who have a clear awareness of historical evolution. According to this notion, the Party thus represents the suitable organism for imparting to that class the consciousness of its own class situation and leading it in the assault on the bourgeois State.

This analysis is the one more or less accepted by all the extremists, such differences as there are concerning merely the organization of that organism (flexible or rigid leadership principle, hierarchy, discipline, prohibition or tolerance of factions, etc.) and the question of its relationship with the working class.

Leftism, in contrast, sees the consciousness of the proletariat as itself the factor affecting historical evolution. There is thus no question of a revolutionary party that is the repository of class consciousness. Far from providing the fount of knowledge with which to impregnate the masses, the party organization can only come into being as the expression of the spontaneous consciousness of the workers. Leftism confronts party communism with council communism.

In May-June 1968, the watchword of councils spilled over out of the small circle of theoretical discussion groups. Action committees sprang up like mushrooms : the precise assessment of their actual and potential role gave rise to discussion which still continues to this day. Had the reality overtaken the theory ? Council communism, at all events, lies at the heart of leftist theory : the question now is to grasp its real significance through the multifarious conceptions which have been expressed in recent years. For they reflect the doubts and the limitations of the whole movement; beyond the mere matter of organization, the whole idea of socialism is called in question.

The theory of workers' councils may mean one of several different things : historically, it emerged out of reflection on the Soviet revolution and on the failure of the councillist movement in Germany. At that time it was still a tributary of Marxism, and regarded itself as the correct interpretation thereof. It is also concerned with the type of management appropriate to the emancipated society : on this level, it is intended to provide the content of socialism (economic, social and political life managed by the organization of councils). Finally, in a more restricted sense, the theory of councils suggests a model for the revolutionary organization of the proletariat. But two apparently unrelated questions immediately arise here : does this mean the spontaneous organization of the proletariat once the revolutionary process has been set in motion, or the organization of the revolutionary movement as it is supposed to emerge from the day-to-day struggle in a pre-revolutionary situation ? Clearly the two questions are closely linked and partisan analysis rarely separates them. The boundary between workers' councils as the content of socialism and workers' councils as organization is itself extremely blurred, and the present separation of the various levels of discussion is completely arbitrary. However, it is through problems of organization that leftism attempts to assert itself, since these are the problems which seem the most urgent and immediate.

It should also be noted that the believers in council communism do not share all the conceptions set out earlier on the critique of everyday life. Council theory is very much older, for a start, than situationist theory. Those who first propagated it in France tended to cling to a critique which was basically economic, if not exclusively so. By contrast, the younger generation adopted the watchword of councils from the start. What is important for our purpose is, in the last analysis, to disentangle the various strands which converge to form a single vision of society and the revolution, to the extent that that vision runs counter to Marxism-Leninism. Before finding a balance that is both coherent and stable (if it ever does), leftist theory has juxtaposed various elements which are frequently apparently heterogeneous. Did not Marx himself postulate the synthesis of the 'three sources' : English political economy, French utopian socialism and German philosophy ?

In order to understand the meaning of the discussion which surrounds the concept of the 'workers' council', it is necessary to recall the historical tradition, which French leftism has both adopted and overtaken. This tradition has sprung from several different sources. Firstly anarchism, which began in the nineteenth century to systematize the experiments in self-management tried out in the workshops of 'free and independent' craftsmem and projected the vision of these experiences into an idealized future reproducing a past that was irretrievably lost. Then the revolution of 1905 inspired in Rosa Luxemburg a train of thought which, contrasting with her ultra-orthodox Marxism and her militancy, did not fail to have a profound influence on three social-democratic parties. She observed that the revolution, through the length and breadth of the Russian Empire (of that time), was unleashed spontaneously, without any coordination or prior decision being taken, and she deduced from this that it is not in the power of a party either to launch or to prevent a revolution. [1] This obviously immediately poses the problem of the avant-garde role of the Party. Rosa Luxemburg goes further still by asserting that not only does the revolutionary organization not provoke the event (in the present instance a general strike), but that the organization is itself the product of the struggle. [2] Certainly in writing this she was not necessarily referring to workers' councils (of which she had, in fact, had experience) but to all forms of organization which the proletariat might set up, whether trade unions, parties or works councils. Here in embryo was the hard core of the councillist viewpoint : in the course of its struggle, the proletariat spontaneously creates the organization it needs. To the leftists, this can only be a non-centralized form like the works committee or the workers' council. To Rosa Luxemburg, it was not a question of the masses rejecting the Party. In her there was a clear contradiction between the orthodox militant, firmly rooted in her own time and place, and the lucid analyst able to draw conclusions of universal validity from an isolated event. These two aspects always coexisted in her : her quarrel with Lenin on the subject of the Party, then her critique of the Russian Revolution and finally her lack of enthusiasm for joining the Third International, are all strands of the same thread. Towards the end of her life, she placed all her confidence in the revolutionary instinct of the masses, in particular as manifested in workers' councils such as had appeared in Germany in 1918. [3]

It is true that she continued to work within the framework of the Party, that her works on political economy were scrupulously Marxist and that she participated in all the Party's 'internal' disputes. There is a wealth of material for historical polemic which I shall not go into here. The significant fact is that the first aspect of the thought of Rosa Luxemburg was taken up by some leftists; for some years there has been a myth of 'Luxemburgism' as a doctrine in its own right. It is certainly the case that Rosa Luxemburg was the initiator of a new tradition, and that the new leftism lies within the scope of that tradition.

Georg Lukács also exhibited something of the same ambiguity : he was at one and the same time a Party man and a theoretician of the spontaneity of the masses. It has been shown that he saw class consciousness as the driving force of history, the decisive factor in the self-liberation of the proletariat. Both an actor and passionately concerned observer in the Russian and Hungarian revolutions of 1919, he did not fail to draw conclusions on the historic role of the proletariat, conscious of the part it had to play and of the tasks before it. When, in March 1920, he considered the problem of how class consciousness could assume concrete form to become a real and effective force, his immediate answer was : by workers' councils. Moreover, his conception was very far-reaching, since the workers' council in his view is a kind of quasi-essence in which all contradictions are resolved, the form in which class consciousness has pursued its struggle ever since its birth. [4] Once again, one could conduct a closely reasoned historical exegesis, and demonstrate that the Party organization against which Lukács sets the workers' council is in fact the old reformist social democracy. Nevertheless, his conception was to find in modern leftism a very favourable soil for transplantation.

I have already mentioned the anarchist tradition as one possible medium for the transmission of the councillist tradition. There was no shortage of talk, after the 'events' of May-June 1968, about 'libertarian revolt', a renewal of anarchism, etc. Historians of the labour movement have taken pains to demonstrate the perennial reappearance of anarchist ideas and even the direct influence of anarchy on these events. [5]

The fact that some anarchist ideas were enshrined in the leftist demands, the 'prise de parole' of spring 1968, is undeniable. They may be found in every period of social unrest, revolt and upheaval. The problem of the perenniality of the anarchist tradition and its influence on leftist theory, however, occurs in quite another form. It is closely dependent on the existence of a libertarian movement, on its liveliness and popularity among the theoreticians of the new revolution.

The anarchist movement itself has been moribund in France since the end of the First World War. The anarchist tradition, for its part, has been kept alive by a small number of talented writers (the most remarkable of them being Sébastien Faure) who have generally been content to nurse the flame, to preserve the memory of illustrious forebears : Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin. The main body of anarchist ideas has hardly undergone any renewal or addition, except possibly among colonies of émigrés, principally Russians, who brought up new problems in the light of their experience of the Russian, Hungarian or German revolution. [6]

After the war, the Federation of Anarchists (FA) and the Federation of Libertarian Communists (FCL) continued to preach the classic themes in the pages of their newspaper (Le Libertaire and later the Monde libertaire) : in the manner of the orthodox communists, they defended an ideology which they regarded as inviolable, a finished system to be rejected or accepted as a whole. Anarchism was a theorization of a number of rejection symptoms of the budding industrial society. Even taking account of the exaggerations he makes, Marx's critique was far from untrue : in many respects, nineteenth-century anarchism represented a reactionary tendency, a utopian desire to return to a vanished society of free and equal artisans. In the face of the concentration of capital and the burgeoning growth of factories, the craftsman and small manufacturer was doomed to disappear.

It remains true, however, that nineteenth-century anarchist thought handed down a number of ideas which were not necessarily dated, such as the frequently clairvoyant critique of Marxism, of the phenomenon of bureaucracy (which Bakunin foresaw with great clarity), of the party and of authority in general, whether exercised by the State, the trade unions or by political parties. But to the extent that the French anarchist movement of the period after the Liberation was unable to renew its theory in the light of the great wealth of experience of the previous fifty years, it had become an organization of commemoration (of its great predecessors, great historic dates, the Spanish legend, etc).

A second possible explanation for the dissatisfaction of the leftist young may be found in the organizational authoritarianism of the Federation, reinforced by the 'Leninist' experience of Georges Fontenis.

The anarchists' 'shutting out' of the contemporary world was thus balanced by a kind of preservation of the sacred tradition, combined with an attitude of extreme hostility towards Marxism in all its forms. [7] It would seem that the deliberate ignorance of the whole theoretical heritage of Marx, Lukács, Korsch further accentuated the isolation of the French anarchist movement and gave it a certain anachronistic air.

It can be asserted without fear of contradiction that 'official' anarchism played no part either in recent events or in the emergence of leftist theory. [8] On the other hand, it is none the less true that some isolated groups, cells and individual writers were the vehicles and media for the transmission of those elements of classic anarchism which were susceptible to being absorbed by a more modern theory. These were able to play a role to the extent that they ranged themselves as much against the 'family' of organized anarchism as against Stalinism. The case of the review Noir et Rouge is a good example of this. It was read and discussed outside anarchist circles precisely because it refused, in its own words, to engage in the futile exercise of outbidding others in its protestations of anti-Marxism, and declared itself ready to receive and study the revolutionary experience of the twentieth century in order to draw such lessons as might be learned from it. The case of Noir et Rouge is also exemplary in that the creation of the journal corresponded to the departure of a number of young anarchists from the FCL on the eve of the 'electoralist' experiment of 1956. The FCL itself already constituted an attempt at renewal of the old anarchist Federation; some of the young people who came into the movement after the war were disillusioned by the experiment and founded, in November 1955, the Anarchist Revolutionary Action Groups (GAAR), with Noir et Rouge as their mouthpiece from March 1956. [9] The line taken by Noir et Rouge was to place it outside the existing families, since to this journal the breach was not between Marxism and anarchism but between a bureaucratic and a libertarian view of socialism. [10] The journal had certainly come a long way since its foundation, when the avowed aim of its supporters was simply to prepare 'the basis of a rejuvenated anarchism'; [11] but by taking a very open-minded attitude, they were immediately impressed by the modern experiments in workers' councils, notably in Hungary. From Marxism, Noir et Rouge borrowed the theory of class and the class struggle, and accepted the importance of its analysis of production relationships. [12]

The positive contribution made by Noir et Rouge consisted in its deliberate policy of not restricting itself to the study of economic mechanisms, and of adding to the aim of social transformation the task of revolutionizing the consciousness; in short, they extended the revolutionary battlefield, culminating in the assertion that 'The revolution must be total, or not at all.' [13] But it is clearly the anarchist tradition with regard to organization that constituted the principal contribution of Noir et Rouge to the development of a leftist theory. Initially, the paper took up the old anarchist maxim that the means determine the end, in other words that the form of organization in a pre-revolutionary period cannot fail to have an effect on the method of running the socialist society (and hence on the content of socialism), so propagating the classic pattern of organization in small, autonomous groups loosely linked in a voluntary federation. The idea of workers' councils was not altogether absent, but was still referred to only in the abstract. [14] Then, after 1964-5, Noir et Rouge brought up and discussed the modern experience of workers' councils, examining the concrete content of this idea as a revolutionary mode of organization and as a method of economic management. [15]

This aspect of the activity of Noir et Rouge seems to me extremely important, since it brought to the notice of the reader a whole revolutionary tradition that was practically unknown until the nineteen-sixties, because deliberately ignored by most of the movements that owed allegiance to Marxism.

The image of Spanish anarchism propagated by the Party had been one of a counter-revolutionary movement, contrasting sharply with the efficiency of the Marxist parties, the government and the regular Republican Army. In this way, many young militants discovered eye-witness account and other texts (for the most part unpublished in France) on the day-today operation of agricultural collectives, enterprises run by workers' control, and anarchist bands before they became incorporated in the militias. Similarly, Noir et Rouge brought up previously unknown libertarian experiments in self-management : the struggles of the Ukrainian anarchists between 1917 and 1920 (the uprising known under the name of 'Makhnovchtchina', from the name of Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian peasant converted to anarchism), and the Kronstadt rising; it also discussed the revolutionary validity of the attempts at workers' control exercised in Yugoslavia and Algeria. In short, without attempting to elaborate a new theory (in which respect it resembled the Situationist International), Noir et Rouge was able to break out of the vicious circle of anarchism-Marxism and move on to the road towards possibly superseding this sterile conflict, the road in fact supposedly opened up by council communism. [16]

The historical experience of workers' councils had given rise to some theoretical reflection which, while it was not swallowed whole by French leftism, was the starting point of theoretical research. If journals such as Noir et Rouge contributed to our knowledge of the historical experiments in workers' councils, they also facilitated the assimilation of 'councillist' doctrines and their analysis. The most complete of the organizational theories relating to workers' councils is, in fact, based primarily on Soviet and German experience between 1918 and 1921. Leftism, as will be shown later, was to take account of the historical nature of this theory in order to expand it to fit the dimensions of the modern world.

There can be no doubt that it was the German and Dutch far left which drew the most extreme conclusions from the effect of the Russian and German revolutions. Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960) is the most representative thinker of councillist circles. His theory is based on over half a century's experience of militancy. It contained practically all the ideas of the councillists, past and present. It is important to present it here, for all the theoretical discussions and practical activities of the leftist movement were constructed around or stemmed directly from it.

All of Pannekoek's thought is based on three intellectual theses and one historical experience. These theses were formulated before the First World War and they remained central to his thought right up to the end of his life :

1. The materialist view of history. This he clearly derived from Marxism : in studying history and social development, Pannekoek bases his ideas on the relationships between the system of production and the class struggle. In man, the struggle for existence has led to increasingly sophisticated developments in tools. Technical progress, advances in the process of production are crucial to the evolution of the social order. This development itself obeys laws, just like the evolutionary process in the animal kingdom. The agent of this evolution is the class struggle. [17]

2. But this struggle, while it may correspond to changes in the material environment of society (machinery, production, material standard of living), is actually a struggle of consciousness. This is the very antithesis of the mechanistic interpretations of a man like Kautsky : the development of material conditions of production cannot hasten the revolution unless they change the workers' consciousness of their material environment. Men have to think change before they can accomplish it. The revolutionary process depends both on the development of class consciousness and on the organization of production. It even seems that the subjective element assumed increasing importance in Pannekoek's mind as the years passed : some time before his death he repeated that the aims of this struggle are achieved in the daily experience of the proletarian, by that which is 'alive' in his thought, and also by continual discussion and clarification. [18]

The proletariat has all the more need for a clear awareness of the tasks it faces because the strength of the bourgeoisie is, today, primarily spiritual. What Pannekoek calls the 'spiritual power of the bourgeoisie is just as dangerous as its power of material exploitation : [19] bourgeois ideas penetrate the mind of the worker by the logic of the system of production, by education, propaganda, the Church, the press, etc. The proletariat is totally dependent intellectually on the bourgeoisie, and acquiesces in its own enslavement. For it to conquer, it must therefore rid itself of this dependence : capitalism must first be defeated theoretically before being suppressed in practice. 'The road towards liberty will remain closed till the day the working class realizes the importance of independent action and of workers' control.' [20]

3. It is up to the workers as a body to liberate humanity. Pannekoek's view of the revolution and of revolutionary organization flowed from the importance attached to mass action in the revolutionary process (a view he had held since before the First World War). It is up to the masses to accomplish 'The Task' : [21] they must make themselves masters of their own work, control the means of production. It is therefore also up to them to create the forms of struggle and of organization. Since before 1914 Pannekoek aligned himself with Rosa Luxemburg and other 'radical socialists' in their attempts to develop a theory of the organizational process, in opposition to the practice (and indeed the theory) of social democracy, which had 'institutionalized' the Party once and for all by imposing on it a complex system of central committees, executive bodies, etc. But his 'system' of workers' councils was only to take its final shape after the experience of the revolutions of 1917-20 (Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary). [22] This experience enabled him (negatively) to develop his critique of party socialism and (positively) to formulate his concept of council socialism.

As early as 1921, Pannekoek was condemning the Russian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution. [23] The régime to which it gave birth, he says, was a State-capitalist régime, to the extent that the bureaucratic class was the exclusive (and collective) owner of the means of production. Like the middle class of the Western countries, it lived from exploitation and from surplus value. But Pannekoek also calls the régime State socialism, because the State is the only employer and it also has absolute control of production. [24] Whether State capitalism or State socialism (two aspects of the same reality), the important thing, the reality of the case, is that the proletariat does not control the means of production directly. He concludes from this that party socialism represents a new theory and practice of domination which corresponds to modern capitalism's need for efficiency. Socialism, as a nineteenth-century idea of liberation, was nothing more than the slogan of an imperfect liberation, which proposed to place in power those leaders which the working class had chosen. Its objectives, the nationalization of the economy and the conquest of the State, correspond exactly to the needs of capitalism. 'The[proletariat's] expression of the modest hope for liberation has become the instrument of its voluntary submission to an even worse form of slavery.' [25]

All organizations inspired by party communism have, consequently, become the means either of increasing the power of Russian capitalism, or of taking over the running of free-enterprise capitalism, or again of accommodating itself to the latter. Hence the trade unions now appear as outside the working class; they are the intermediaries through which the labour force is put on to the market. They have become an integral part of the 'apparatus of domination', establishment institutions. [26]

Anton Pannekoek contrasts party socialism with council socialism, which represents the true liberating factor. Pannekoek had the advantage of witnessing such councils in action at the time of the German revolution of 1918-20. But even during the war he had observed the spontaneous formation of works committees with members elected outside (or even in opposition to) the framework of trade-union organization. After 1919, he discussed in various extreme-left-wing journals the merits of the 'Rätesystem'; in it he sensed a possible method of management or even organization of socialist society. Production was to be based on the decisions of a general meeting of the workers on the shop floor. In a large factory, the unit of management would be the shop stewards' committee. Their mandate would be binding, it could be revoked at any time, accounts would be open to universal inspection, wages would be calculated on the basis of the number of hours worked.

Such councils, however, would not be restricted to economic management; they would also provide the political structures to replace present forms of government. Within them, the division between the political and the economic would disappear, as would the division between specialists and producers. The workers' councils would be fully coordinated with one another, horizontally and vertically. [27]

This leads naturally on to a definition of the workers' council in the revolutionary and pre-revolutionary period, and hence to a discussion of revolutionary organization. Once again, Pannekoek exhibits here that concern for the concrete so characteristic of him, basing himself entirely on historical examples. The workers' council makes its appearance during a period of revolution; more precisely, it represents the 'new form' of organization forged by the proletariat as a function of the stage of evolution reached by capitalism. Just as the middle class gradually rid itself, in the course of its history, of the masters it had itself set up (municipalities, corporations, princes, monarchs), the working class provides itself with ruling bodies which correspond to the stage of development it has reached. In the workers' council, the proletariat expresses for the first time its rejection of all new masters : instead of changing its leadership, it abolishes the very function of leadership. [28]

To summarize Pannekoek's thought, it may be said that workers' councils represent, in the first place, a method of political and economic management applied by a socialist society, and in the second place the organ of revolutionary struggle belonging to a given historical phase, namely that in which the working class has progressed to a realization of the tasks facing it. It is difficult to pinpoint the emergence of workers' councils; Pannekoek thinks that the present period brings them into being the moment the struggle reaches a given degree of intensity - which evidently poses the question of the revolutionary process, for councils can only arise in the course of such a process. It is at such moments that the workers become radicalized; a strike committee already contains the seeds of a workers' council . [29] But the revolutionary process itself covers an entire period; this extensive concept clearly contrasts with the notion of revolution as insurrection. What this means is that it is not enough to seize power; the proletariat must, during the preceding period, establish the (spiritual) groundwork for its own accession.

The autonomous organizations which the proletariat tends to set up for itself also correspond to new forms of struggle, which are themselves indicative of the level of maturity of the proletariat in the industrialized countries. Henceforth, the struggle against capital takes place by direct action. Such action is taken outside the bourgeois forms of opposition (parliamentarianism, ministerialism) and outside the channels of party socialism (trade unionism, party politics). Pannekoek is convinced that as capitalism becomes increasingly brutal and as the proletariat matures, the wildcat strike and the occupation of factories will become its basic weapons : 'They[wildcat strikes] are the precursors of the great struggles of the future, those which will come about when the major social crises accompanying social pressures and increasingly violent disturbances drive the masses into ever more vigorous action.' [30]

The problem which Pannekoek poses and which most of the supporters of council communism continue to discuss is that of the existence, the role, indeed the very necessity of a revolutionary organization. In other words, the vexed question of the party arises once again. The author of Workers' Councils is far from clear and categorical on this point. He himself oscillates between acceptance of the necessity for organization and a contradictory belief in spontaneity.

Certainly the logic of his system, viz. the spontaneous creation of councils, excludes the possibility of any organization with the specific role of preparing for and, where necessary, sustaining the soviets. This is the idea he is expressing when he says that the proletariat has no need of 'think groups' for its own praxis, for when the time comes it will create its own organs : the councils. [31] It is not the party that creates the revolution, but the class as a whole.

On the other hand, however, it has been shown how insistent he is on the spiritual nature of the process, revolutionary effort being a question of will : men must think change before they can accomplish it. Consequently the period of liberation will be one of discussion within the labour movement directed towards choosing 'orientations' for the future. [32] The role of 'think groups' in such discussions would not be a negligible one : they would have to give expression to the ideas that emerged, present them in an acceptable form, and propagate them. In short, they would have the function of establishing the theoretical groundwork. [33]

Pannekoek has been known to be inconsistent on the precise functions of these 'groups'. But throughout his writings he insists on their existence, while specifying that he is not talking about a party in the Leninist sense. He even opposes parties of the type of the KAPD (of which he had been a member). Yet the word 'party' is not religiously excluded from Pannekoek's writings. He sees it as a federation of 'working groups', as 'the organ of collective thought', the 'spiritual form' of the proletariat. In 1947, he wrote :

It is[the function] of parties to diffuse ideas and experience,[to] study, discuss, formulate social ideas, and to enlighten the minds of the masses by propaganda. Workers' councils are the organs of practical action, of the struggle of the working class; it is the function of the parties to build up its spiritual strength. Their work is an indispensable part of the auto-emancipation of the working class. [34]

In his letter to P. Chaulieu, quoted above, Pannekoek reproduces almost word for word his idea of the revolutionary party which must enrich the consciousness of the masses so that they may acquire an 'increasingly wide' and clearer awareness of their tasks.

In point of fact, the problem of party organization is treated by Anton Pannekoekin a highly ambiguous manner, if he is to be taken literally : having said that the problem exists, he immediately empties it of all real significance, since it is the masses who, in the last resort, will decide on their own actions. At the same time, however, the 'spiritual' element is of the greatest importance, since the revolution is 'the accession of the mass of the people to the consciousness of their existence and their nature'. [35] In these circumstances the party, defined as the whole body of 'those who see furthest', [36] surely has a crucial part to play. And does this not imply a return to the notion of a party of leadership ? The communists, say Pannekoek, are the people with the clearest ideas, the most capable of putting them across, and of proposing the best practical measures. [37] But are those very people not the most powerfully motivated to lead and direct the masses ? From 'proposing' measures to 'imposing' them is but a short step.

Certainly the ambiguity is there. However, it is not necessarily essential to take Pannekoek literally. The kind of revolutionary organization he is talking about is the type in which he himself was a militant : a working group dedicated to theoretical study and development, with no fixed, immutable structure, which could indeed easily be mistaken for a body like the Groep van Internationale Communisten (GIC) that contained a number of Dutch 'councillists'.In fact, names are of little importance to him : it is the reality of the leadership-oriented revolutionary party that he rejects. [38] In order to understand his idea of organization, it is necessary to enter into the spirit of his system. To him, the proletarian revolution breaks out once the proletariat has become aware of its task : if a party takes over the workers' councils and imposes a line of action on them, it means that the class is not yet sufficiently mature. He points out that this is what happened in the Russian Revolution of 1917 : the soviets set themselves up spontaneously, and yet the Bolshevik Party took power. This meant, Pannekoek concludes, that it was really 'obliged' to take power, in the sense that the proletariat was incapable of doing so itself, since circumstances were not ripe for a 'true' proletarian revolution. [39]

If we now consider the legacy left by Pannekoek to the proponents of council communism, it must be recognized that some theoretical problems remained unsolved.

For one thing, Anton Pannekoek never lost the traces of his long sojourn in social democracy or of his militant's theoretical training. He remained a Marxist all his life. [40] Consequently his council communism retained the marks of these origins. In particular, he lays special emphasis on the economic aspects of the class struggle, on the development of economic forces and forms. His historical materialism sometimes spills over into evolutionism (cf. his book Marxismus and Darwinismus and also Lénine philosophe) and leads him to imagine socialist society as 'productivist' -- a society in which work will finally be carried out joyfully. As we have seen, these preoccupations are a considerable distance from more recent viewpoints, such as the analyses contained in the critique of everyday life. It is quite certain that Pannekoek's notions on work are diametrically opposed to those which had their origins in surrealism. His attitude borders on the moral notion of work as having some kind of regenerative power, on the lines sketched out by Marx (man in fashioning nature fashions himself), or even Proudhon (work is what confers dignity on man; only the productive worker is worthy of esteem). Similarly, his socialism is in parts quite close to the socialism of Lenin. In a socialist society, he says, the rate of growth and economic progress will reach levels unheard of in capitalist society. [41] His socialism remains impregnated with a positivism which many leftists reject. There is plenty of room for dispute here, and dispute has ensued, as will be seen. In addition, some present-day councillist groups vigorously reject the arguments of the critique of everyday life, exalting militancy at the 'point of production'. This brings us to the question of defining the proletariat : here again, Pannekoek remained a prisoner of his time, holding a very restrictive concept of the proletarian. His vision of the worker possibly excludes today's technician or worker in the tertiary sector.

It nevertheless remains true that in other areas he was able to put across astonishingly modern, even prophetic ideas. Mention has already been made of what he said, as long ago as 1947, about direct action, wildcat strikes, factory sit-ins. Likewise the importance he attaches to the subjective factor (consciousness, will, etc.) is in complete harmony with certain modern leftist attitudes.

Above all, Pannekoek is 'contemporary' because he tried to draft the best formula for putting into effect the maxim that 'the emancipation of the workers must be achieved by the workers themselves'. This is the reason why this theory is at the centre of the current debates on the left : the leftist movements of today are all endeavouring to define their respective positions in relation to it -- and also, be it said, in relation to its ambiguities.


[1] Rosa Luxemburg, Grève de masses, parti et syndicats (Paris : Petite collection Maspéro, 1969), pp. 134-5.

[2] ibid., p. 146.

[3] cf. her speech to the constituent congress of the German Communist Party (in A. and D. Prudhommeaux, Spartacus et la Commune de Berlin[published by Spartacus, Paris, 1949] , p. 55).

[4] History and Class Consciousness (Merlin Press, 1971), p. 80.

[5] cf., for example, D. Guérin : 'Mai, une continuité, un renouveau', in Le Fait public, 6 (May 1969); and J. Maitron : 'Anarchisme' in Le Mouvement social, 69 (October-December 1969).

[6] To be perfectly fair, it should be specified that it is collectivist anarchist thought which appears to have stagnated. The whole philosophical, ethnical and individualistic tradition continues with writers like Emile Armand, C. A. Bontemps, etc, In addition, a number of anarchists devoted themselves to spreading pacifist ideas during the interwar period, the best known of these being Louis Lecoin.

[7] Which led some to take sides with the Western powers against the Soviet bloc.

[8] This was in fact admitted by one of the moving spirits of the FA who declared that this organization had nothing to do with the initiation of the events of May-June 1968 nor played any part in them -- interview of Maurice Joyeux in Le Fait public, (14 January 1970). On a purely analytic level, an exception must be made of the 'peri-anarchists' such as B. Péret; cf. G. Munis, B. Péret, Les Syndicates contre la révolution (Paris, 1968).

[9] For the history of Noir et Rouge, see the 46th (and last) issue for an article by one of its founders, Ch. Lagant : 'Sur le néo-anarchisme'. After 1961 the group itself took the name of 'Noir et Rouge'.

[10] cf. the Editorial in Nos. 42-3 of Noir et Rouge (November 1968).

[11] Noir et Rouge, 3, p. 5.

[12] ibid., 3, 4 and 28. This very open kind of anarchism should not be confused with the 'libertarian Marxism' of D. Guérin (L'Anarchisme, Paris, 1965), since in contrast to the latter it refused to accept a complete synthesis of the two doctrines (cf. No. 28 : 'Faire le point').

[13] 'La Revolte de la jeunesse', Noir et Rouge, 13 (1959). Cf. also No. 11. After 1961, Noir et Rouge progressively abandoned the purely ethical preoccupations of anarchism and established contact with council-communist groups.

[14] cf., for example, Noir et Rouge, 4, p. 9, and 10, p. 52, in which the group demonstrated its acceptance of the notion of workers' councils, as then expressed by Socialisme ou Barbarie (1958).

[15] Noir et Rouge, 30 ('Témoignage sur trois collectivités en Espagne'), 31-2 ('L'Autogestion contemporaine' and 'L'Autogestion en Yougolavie'), 34, 35, 36, 37, 38 ('L'Autogestion en Algérie'), 41 ('Les Conseils en Russie'), etc.

[16] Daniel Cohn-Bendit a member of the group, is a good illustration of this 'eclecticism' : he defined himself as an anarchist 'negatively', by his rejection of dogmatism, but did not completely reject Marx, any more than he completely accepted Bakunin. When he was pressed to define his position, he placed himself in the general stream of 'council communism' (interview in Magazine littéraire, 8 May 1968). This state of mind was in fact shared by a number of leftists in May-June 1968. Cf. the author's Projet révolutionnaire. Éléments d'une sociologie des événements de mai-juin 1968 (Paris, 1969), Chapter 1,'Les Théoriciens de la spontanéité'.

[17] There is a continual recurrence of this theme in Pannekoek's writings : see the extracts quoted (in French) by Serge Bricianer in Pannekoek et les counseils ouvriers (EDI, Paris,1969), accompanied by some remarkable explanatory notes.

[18] cf. 'Anton Pannekoek's second letter to Pierre Chaulieu', reproduced in (Cahiers du communisme de conseils, 8 (May 1971).

[19] A. Pannekoek, Workers' Councils (Melbourne, 1950), p. 29 (published by the 'Southern Advocate for Workers' Councils'). (For a summary, see S. Bricianer, op. cit.)

[20] A. Pannekoek, op. cit.. p. 230.

[21] The title of the first chapter of Workers' Councils.

[22] In his letter to Chaulieu, quoted above, Pannekoek also says how impressed he was by the political strikes in Belgium in 1893 and in Russia in 1905.

[23] cf. S. Bricianer's article in Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 220.

[24] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, pp, 201-2 and p. 85.

[25] ibid., p. 225.

[26] ibid., p. 221.

[27] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, Chapter 1.

[28] 'The Failure of the Working Class', in Politics, III, 8 (September 1964), quoted by S. Bricianer, Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 220.

[29] ibid., p. 180.

[30] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, p. 69.

[31] ibid., p. 101.

[32] ibid.

[33] ibid., and 'Prinzip and Taktik' (Proletarier, 7 and 8, 1927), quoted by S. Bricianer, Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, pp. 231-2.

[34] 'Cinq thèses sur la lutte de classe', French version in Informations et correspondance ouvrières, supplement to No. 72 (June-July 1968).

[35] Letter written by Anton Pannekoek on 8 November 1953, addressed to Pierre Chaulieu and reproduced in Socialisme ou Barbarie, 14 (April-June 1954). (This was the first letter, the only one published in Socialisme ou Barbarie.)

[36] Quoted in S. Bricianer, Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 232.

[37] ibid.

[38] He says as much himself, in fact : 'The name is unimportant, as long as these parties adopt a role completely different from that which present-day parties aspire to play.' (Quoted by S. Bricianer, loc. cit., p. 262. My italics.)

[39] A. Pannekoek's second letter to P. Chaulieu, Socialisme ou Barbarte, 14.

[40] A fact which is further emphasized by his disciple Paul Mattick in an article dedicated to Anton Pannekoek, written after the latter's death : 'Anton Pannekoek', La Révolution prolétarienne, 472 (1962).

[41] Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, pp, 58 and 59.