Preface and Introduction

Submitted by libcom on August 6, 2005

Preface Preface to the Introduction to Origins of the Movement for Workers Councils in Germany

We are reprinting this pamphlet firstly, because despite the myriad's of publications that now claim to represent a 'continuity' with the German Left of the period, this history is still unknown to generations ofworkers.

Secondly the arguments it debates and the issues it raises are still unresolved, and can only begin to be resolved by making this history better known. Despite the best (and worst) efforts of some, these issues cannot be resolved theoretically nor in adva nce.

Thirdly, it is timely because we are publishing it at a time when many militants are disorientated and demoralised by the prospect of continuing Tory rule in Britain. The implication being that all should 'rally' behind 'one more push' to get a Labour Gov ernment re elected.

One of the main reasons for publishing this pamphlet originally was to show how reactionary Social Democracy was in 1918 (the year Clause 4 was written) in immediately using the power of the old workers movement to stabilise society, to preserve that soci ety from the new working class forces which were emerging to challenge the capitalist way of doing things.

Nothing that has happened in the intervening years has caused us to revise our opinion of Social Democracy in general and the Labour Party in particular. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a Labour Government could be elected again. If it doe s happen, our view is that it will be because our present rulers have lost their way and can no longer hold together. Nothing the Labour Party can do will change its essential nature as saviour of the capitalist system; as such it can hardly have a mass a ppeal for the working class. Nor has this party a superior understanding of the crisis at present working its way through modern institutions.

But the Labour Party understands only too well its role as a stabilising, conservative force within society, seeking at all costs (along with its paymasters in the trade unions) to prevent the emergence of any tendency within the working class which seeks to break out of the straitjacket of Parliamentary politics and trade unionism.

It was a popular pamphlet when we first published it and now we have managed to catch up with capitalist technology, it is also easier for us to reproduce it. We hope it will prove popular again.

We have not found it necessary to alter the original introduction all that much, beyond altering dated references to politics and events current at the time of the original printing and to add a section on the discussion of the 'Principles', where we aler t the reader to new developments, both in the economy and politics which we think need serious study.

In addition the original introduction dealt with many of the ideas which reflected renewed interest in the concept of 'self management'. The intervening years have not been kind to these notions. It is interesting to see how many of the ideas advanced by this movement and criticised theoretically at the time, have been incorporated into modern management theory and have re-emerged as new forms and methods of controlling and directing labour. [ ' An "ideal" capitalism could tolerate the self mana gement of the conditions of production: as long as a normal profit is made by the firm, the organisation of the work can be left to the workers.' - p. 72 Barrot & Martin, Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, 1974, Black & Red, D etroit. This text goes on to argue that this has become the programme of some of the more 'left wing' unions in France and Italy since the 'events' of 1968 and 1969 in those countries]

Modern capitalism now demands the active intellectual engagement of the worker, if it is to make the best of 'just in time' and '100% quality control' methods of production and distribution. We feel this shows how parasitic modern capitalism has become, i n so far as it has no new dynamic except to draw off the ingenuity and creativity of the working class itself. Whilst for the moment it may not be clear what the way forward is, we feel reassured that the contradictions of this mode of production will con tinue to generate their own opposition. It is in this process that we hope this pamphlet will prove useful.

D Graham Liverpool March 1994 The Introduction Proper

The pamphlet produced here in English was apparently first published in Dutch in 'Radencommunismus' No. 3 1938, the journal of the Council Communist Group of Holland, and later translated into French and published in 'Internationalisme' No. 45 1952. Revis ed and completed with a resume of the Principles (see second part starting on p. **) which were written for the International Communist journal 'Bilan' (Nos. 19 - 21, 1935) and then published by 'Informations Correspondences Ouvri_res' (No. 42 1965) from which it has been translated. It was first published in English by Coptic Press in 1968. Appendix 1 was produced as Appendix B in the Coptic Press edition, we have added Appendix 2 ourselves, along with addresses where the original material may be obtaine d.

It falls into two parts : (i) a critical analysis of council communism in Germany between 1919 and 1929, when it disappeared temporarily from the historical scene, and (ii) the 'Principles' which were produced in 1930 in a study on 'The Fundamental Princi ples of Communist Production and Distribution' which was drawn up by the Dutch Council Communist group in collaboration with former Berlin members of the AAUD.

The first part is a useful introduction to British militant and revolutionary workers - and students - of a very important period of German working class history which has its parallel in this country. Very little information is readily available in Engli sh on the period 1918 to 1920 on the activities ideas of the council communist movement in Germany and even less on its history prior to 1918 before it acquired it's known 'theoreticians', most of whom are only known by being attacked by Lenin in his broc hure 'Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder'. [This pamphlet was published in Russian in April 1920, and translated in English, French and German and available in those languages from July 1920. So it is almost certain that delegates to the Second Co ngress of the Third International in July of that year would not have had time to prepare any counter arguments or debate those advanced by Lenin]

Importance for Study

The importance of studying the failure of the revolutionary movement to overthrow capitalism and it's State in Germany, is that it took place in an advanced capitalist country. The lessons of the defeat will have to be understood otherwise we are in dange r of repeating the same mistakes or having the same inadequacies. These do not just apply to Germany after the First World War but equally to Italy and especially to the area centred on Turin in 1920 - crucially the failure of the workers to overthrow the capitalist state.

Existing studies of these events tend to fall into two categories. Firstly there is the view that the revolution failed because of the absence of a party of the Bolshevik type. The second glorifies the council movement as being alone necessary (as this on e does). The Bolshevik tendencies believe that it is their Party that takes power on behalf of the working class and then 'educates' them to bring about socialism. The council communist position is to praise the decentralisation of the workers' movement i nto autonomous organisations based on each city, town, factory or section of industry etc.

It was this decentralisation however that allowed the survival of the State and the Army. These bodies along with the Social Democratic Party were able to restore 'law and order' with the help of Freikorps fascists and reactionary armed students. This glo rification of decentralisation actually weakens the working class by making it much more difficult to come to grips with the real requirements of workers in and after the seizure of power.

The Trade Unions

One of the major reasons for continuing to publish this pamphlet is that we believe that it still has real lessons for a workers' movement in this country and internationally. We believe that it is continually necessary for workers to broaden and generali se their experience, and that in Germany this experience even though it failed is particularly fruitful.

Firstly on the question of the unions, the German workers found that in their efforts to form their own organs of struggle, they came up against the old Social Democratic trade unions. We know too, how in Britain and in all capitalist countries, the union s have been more and more integrated into the state and no longer 'belong' to the workers. The time has come to state quite categorically that as time goes on, more and more and larger and larger sections of workers will be forced to break with and fight the unions in order to protect our interests as a class independent of capitalism.

We say this not because we 'hate' the unions or we want to 'disarm' the workers in their struggle with capital ( in fact quite the reverse) - it is simply the international experience of the working class that the unions are the arm of the capitalist clas s within our own ranks. This lesson must be absorbed into the day to day struggle to such an extent that it moulds the whole attitude and outlook of workers. Moreover even 'unofficial' organisation so long as it remains tied to the outlook and mentality o f trade unionism cannot escape this process.


By this we mean Social Democracy and its representative in this country, the Labour Party. As the pamphlet says, it was once thought sufficient for a Labour Party to gain a parliamentary majority and hey presto we would have socialism. Well we have had se ven Labour Governments and it is no nearer, despite 'critical support' for the Labour Party from the Left. Instead we had nationalisation of major industries that were decrepit after the Second World War, and as soon as state subsidy and the 'sacrifices' that workers made to make them productive again had an effect, they are once again in private hands (but with the State now playing the leading role in the economy despite Government propaganda about them being 'competitive')

It is absolutely vital for a new working class movement to take a clear and uncompromising attitude towards the State, Parliament and it's Labour Party hangers on. For too long we have had to suffer the illusions of the Parliamentary trick. The German wor kers paid the price of not smashing the newly established Weimar Republic at the earliest opportunity. This lesson alone makes the pamphlet worth republishing.

The Role of the German Communist Party (KPD)

As the pamphlet makes a clear, a significant minority of the German working class, could not accept the policies of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht as regards taking part in elections to the Constituent Assembly which set up the Weimar Republic. This p olicy was endorsed by the leadership of the Russian Communist Party and the Third International and followed the Bolshevik 'tactic' of taking part in elections to the Russian Duma.

In addition, the KPD followed the Bolshevik policy of 'capturing' the trade unions and aimed to construct a 'mass party' like the SPD had been. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the minority German workers were correct and the KPD was followin g an impossible policy. Therefore it was obvious that the KAPD had a better appreciation of the role and influence of Social Democracy within the workers movement.

It is a fact however, that the accumulated weight of tradition, the forms of organisation it imposes are a great load for the working class of a country like Germany (or Britain) with a long history of peaceful, Parliamentary struggle to overthrow. In rev olutionary upheavals especially those brought on by defeat in war, it is necessary for workers to shed this load very quickly or they will be defeated even before they can get off the starting line. With the luxury of hindsight,we can say that the advance d sections of the working class should have broken with the German Social Democratic Party long before they eventually did. However prior to 1914 none of the foregoing was clear, only in Russia in 1905 had the workers formed a new kind of organisation cap able of responding to their needs as a class - the soviet or workers' council. In Russia they quickly became a battleground for the various political tendencies within the workers' movement. So in Germany the workers were breaking new ground - no wonder t hey made mistakes.


Workers' Councils as a form of organisation now has quite a history, unfortunately from our point of view a form is all it is. It is not surprising that our rulers should seize on the creativity and enterprise of the working class to incorporate such move ments into their scheme of things. The pamphlet in its latter part makes it clear that the form cannot be understood without its content. This is why so much effort was put into working out the 'Principles'.

[The Workers Councils were legalised and eventually emasculated in an Act of 4 February 1920. This accomplishment was an extension of the policy of Social Democracy since at least the turn of the century. The official report of the International Labour Or ganisation makes clear the basis upon which the emasculated councils were legalised:-

'1 The Works (sic) Council was to be in no way political body, its duties being purely economic.

2 In the economic sphere, it was not to serve as an instrument of class dictatorship, but merely as a new method put at the disposal of the of the workers to allow (sic) them to defend the rights which were granted to them by legislation and by the Consti tution, and to supervise the practical working of labour conditions.'

Works Councils in Germany p.18 Marcel Berthelot ILO Geneva 1924

Anyone who doubts not just the reactionary but avowedly counter-revolutionary nature of International Social Democracy and the Trade Unions, should read this report]

In Britain we have had a movement towards 'participation' ever since the First World War. Indeed it has been the special role of the Labour Party and the trade unions to enter into such collaborative agreements and to deliver workers bound hand and foot b y them. Recently management's have recovered their nerve and felt able to browbeat workers into accepting such conditions as they offer by virtue of fear of the sack or redundancy, so that participation in the old sense has been pushed into the background . Nevertheless 'progressive' management has long realised the value of encouraging workers' initiative and creativity, from allowing 'control' of the production process in many Japanese style production units down to the use of suggestion schemes. This ha s become a breeding ground for the 'less confrontational' type of shop steward identified in the Donovan report as 'more of a lubricant than an irritant'.

[This actual phrase was used in the Donovan Report - CMND 3623 of June 1968 'Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers Associations paragraph 110. Those of our readers too young to remember the events may like to recall that it was a favourite fantas y of all sorts of Leftists to see in the shop stewards some kind of embryonic rank and file movement that could 'capture' the base of the trade unions. In this instance the State knew all along how necessary the shop stewards were to 'smoothing' labour re lations, which just goes to show that the ruling class has a better grasp of reality than the Left.]

In our opinion much valuable work remains to be done in studying these new 'production' methods, which rely as much on psychological methods (loyalty to mates, concern to be identified with good quality output and encouraging other 'positive' attitudes) a s sheer control over and ownership of the productive process itself.

In the introduction to the previous edition of this pamphlet, the view was put forward that workers' councils might arise from the alleged 'democratic' base ofthe trade union movement and in particular the example of the printing industry was given with i ts distinctive 'chapel' form of organisation. In the light of what we have written above and more importantly, given the history of that particular industry and especially the national press, it should come as no surprise that we totally repudiate such a view. We have seen how the whole trade union structure has been integrated into the apparatus of the state. Of necessity therefore, we expect workers' councils or whatever new form of organisation is appropriate to come about in opposition to the exiting unions as workers seek to advance their separate interests as an independent class.

Workers Councils

The essential difference between 'participation' and the ideas advocated in this pamphlet is that there NO power sharing. Real workers' councils we know are established in the teeth of opposition from management, state, trade unions and even (or especiall y) shop stewards whose power they threaten. Councils are established not just in factories, but over whole working class districts. They deal not just with workers' organisation of production, but with all aspects of social life - food, housing, transport , education and so on. They are made up of delegates elected by mass assemblies and all delegates are instantly revocable and answerable to those assemblies. These councils first came into existence in Russia in 1905 (the word 'soviet' means council in Ru ssian) and at all times of revolutionary upheaval ever since. In Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, wherever workers form a distinctive section of the population this form of organisation has emerged time and again. The establishment of working class organs of power on a wide scale challenges all capitalist institutions, especially the state and it representatives the army and police. The fight of the workers to maintain their hold over production and distribution, and to smash the power of the state is dec isive - this is the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is precisely at this moment that the struggle breaks out in the councils for clarity and understanding of the situation. It should be clear that no political parties as such have any role at all with in the councils. [Such representation was demanded 'as a right' by the old Social Democratic Party and Trade Unions as the pamphlet makes clear. It should be obvious given their role why this should have been more vigourously opposed.] However it is inevi table that workers will be influenced by the conceptions and thinking of such groupings.

Political Parties

Suffice it to say that we think workers should be aware of two main tendencies. Firstly all the different varieties of Leninists who will seek to gain entry to the councils and try to tie them to their Party - as was the experience in Russia. This is not the place to outline our estimation of those events. But it should be obvious that a bureaucracy that transmits orders to a passive and demoralised working class, one man management, the militarisation of labour and forced labour to build a 'workers' stat e' is not our idea of proletarian dictatorship. The soviets were emptied of their revolutionary content and workers became dispirited that all their sacrifice should have been in vain.

The break up of the Soviet Union and its satellites since 1989, not only saw the demise of the orthodox Stalinist parties, but has seen a similar crisis break out within the various Trotskyist movements and other Leftist groupings influenced by them. Trot skyism's only distinctive feature has been a 'critical' analysis of the Soviet Union but there has recently appeared an unhealthy interest in the politics and movements attacked in Lenin's 'Left Wing Communism.....'.

Unless individuals influenced by the counter revolutionary politics of these groupings repudiate the influence of Trotskyism, we believe their only purpose is to dress up and disguise their failed politics by appropriating some of the ideas of the 'ultra- left'.

Trotskyist politics is based upon an acceptance of the Theses, Organisation and Politics of the first four Congresses of the Third International. As this pamphlet makes clear the politics of the ultra-left cannot be welded onto a politics and organisation from which they were systematically hounded by those whom the Trotskyists quite openly claim as their founders. It may be possible for individuals to emerge from Trotskyist and other like organisations, but we do not believe it is possible for such organ isations themselves to accept and integrate the critique of the ultra-left into their politics, because they are out and out capitalist organisations. As such their interest in ultra-left or Left Communist ideas is nothing other than an attempt to radical ise the counter revolution.

Being against the role of these Parties within the councils does not mean that we do not fight for a revolutionary perspective within these bodies as though politics could be abolished just like that. There is a role for organised political minorities. It is precisely the role of revolutionary tendencies and organisations (whatever they call themselves) to struggle for a revolutionary consciousness of the working class at all times, and to ensure that the revolution is successful. Having done this, there is no longer the need for these separate organisations to exist.

Self Management or Autonomy

Secondly, there is what we might term the anarchist conception that sees the councils as autonomous, self managing production units. This may be all very well for a utopia, but in fact this conception does not get rid of capitalism. It ignores the State. It ignores the inter relationships of the capitalist world market. This conception actually reinforces the existing irrational capitalist production relationships by institutionalising them. It is impossible abolish wages and prices on the basis of some ' self-managed' factories. Indeed we have seen how the capitalist class is very happy to sit back and allow workers take over plants and 'run' them themselves. They know full well that before long such 'experiments' soon collapse or if they do succeed it is only by reproducing the same hierarchy as before (and can be used by bosses to show how 'uneconomic' a plant is unless there are 'savings' - which always pits worker against worker). Either way the workers are defeated and worse still the idea of workers ' councils is discredited.

In addition, the idea of autonomous production units supposes that the workers have a ready made productive process that is the basis for socialism or communism, the two are the same thing. But whole sectors of the modern capitalist economy will have to b e destroyed (for instance insurance, advertising, arms industry etc.) Do we really want self management of poison gas manufacture ? Other sectors will need to be expanded or even created to satisfy the newly discovered needs of society. Factories will in many cases have to switch production. Almost certainly whole industries will simply close down.

Who decides all this ? The workers formerly employed in a particular plant or the representative bodies of society ? If it is the workers in each particular plant then it is sure recipe for confusion and chaos. As workers in all parts of production are al so consumers, then why should a worker in one plant not have equal right to decide what is produced at another and vice versa. This must also hold true for all those outside the sphere of production. Only then will there be the basis for socialism - which is the abolition of wage labour and class society. If this is not done, the self managed production units are in danger of becoming small scale capitalist economies, realising value by selling products and crediting others for supplying raw materials, in short the self management of exploitation. Capitalist social relations will 'spontaneously' spring up, unless the economy the workers introduce is superior to it.

The Principles of Communist Production and Distribution

We can see now how these two considerations are very much inter linked. The second part of the pamphlet details an attempt to work out the principles upon which a communist society might be built. We are not sure if this is done successfully, but what we are sure of is that such work is not pure speculation. The Left is quite happy to say that they are not in the business of future gazing, but that is because so many of them live in the past. It is our view that you cannot expect workers to renounce the w orld they know intimately without at least them acquiring the tools with which to construct a new one. In this case even the 'mistakes' made by a previous generation are useful.

Capitalism has developed the means of production to such an extent that we now have the means to build such a society.

Unfortunately the 'Principles' of production and distribution are not reproduced here in full, but some things can be said - with the absence of wages, prices and other capitalist forms, there is no 'economics' of socialism in the sense of objective laws that operate 'behind the backs' of the producers. All attempts to find and codify such 'laws' such as we have seen worked out by various Stalinist parties, obsessed as they are by the need to 'build socialism' by accumulating surpluses which will be inves ted according to a Plan, are reactionary.

Instead the only 'laws' which we recognise are those imposed on us by necessity, the time for workers to make sacrifices for some long distant future is over. The future is here and now, and we mean to have it. Production must be controlled by those insti tutions which the working class itself creates. The problem of matching supply and demand is not a technical one for specialists, but initially at least, must be debated out in the open through these institutions, which will themselves take stock of their available resources and match them to the requirements, which they themselves will work out. With the worker freed from dependence on wages, and society finally able to consciously plan how to meet its requirements - the last fetter to truly human freedo m, class society, will disappear.

It is obvious then that the publication of this pamphlet is no academic exercise. We have sought in this Introduction to show how the practical experience of the German working class in these years is of direct benefit and relevance to workers today, not just in Britain but all over the world. The history of the world since that time also shows the terrible price humanity has to pay for the consequences of the working class's failure to overturn the weight of accumulated tradition and rise up to its histo ric mission. All over the world the position of the worker is the same, there is no longer any need for workers to ride on the back of other social classes and movements as there was in Marx and Engels day. Neither is it now necessary to wait until the pr actical movement caught up with their theoretical elaboration. It is on the basis of the German and other working class practical experiences that we set out to make clear the process of history, whereby political and economic power can be transferred fro m the capitalist class to the working class. It is on these same experiences that we advance a programme and a set of ideas that will make revolution a practical task for the workers of the world.

Dave Graham

[with respect to the comrades of the old Workers Voice group in Liverpool of the 1970s]

PO Box 37 Liverpool L36 9FZ UK Part 2