What is Council Communism?

Wage Slave X outlines the history and theory of Council communism.

Submitted by waslax on October 17, 2009

As a distinct political current within the radical workers’ movement, council communism arose in the 1920s and ‘30s, originally in Germany and Holland. The revolutionary uprising in Germany from 1918 to 1921 provided the original impulse. Council communists were initially part of a larger international current known as “left communist” (condescendingly referred to by Bolshevists as “ultra-leftists”), and were briefly allied with, and attached to, the Third or Communist International (during 1920-21). As such, the council communists were entirely within the marxist political tradition. But what came to separate them from all other currents in that tradition was their appreciation of the historical lessons to be drawn from the course of events that occurred in Germany and Russia (and elsewhere, such as Hungary and Italy) between 1917 and 1923.

Foremost among these ‘lessons’ concerned the question of the role of the communist party in the revolutionary process. While the Bolsheviks and their supporters in the Third International insisted on the necessity for the party to lead, organize and direct the revolutionary process – as the ‘vanguard of the working class’ – and to attain (and retain) supreme power in the new, ‘revolutionary workers state’; the left and council communists from Germany and Holland, on the other hand, rejected such vanguardism. Whereas the early German and Dutch left communists were in favour of a minoritarian (as opposed to a ‘mass’) revolutionary party which would refuse to try to organize or dominate the revolution – leaving that to the masses of workers themselves; the council communists came to reject the party organizational form itself as inherently counter-revolutionary (because inherently vanguardist), and in any case unnecessary for the success of the revolution. It was for such reasons that they came to call themselves “council” communists in opposition to all of the “party” communists.

Of most significance after the question of the “revolutionary party” for the council communists was the question of the state. The Russian experience had shown to them that giving power to a new state after the destruction of the old capitalist state in order to facilitate the transition to a socialist society was a counter-revolutionary strategy, as it only provided the institutional means for the rise of a new bureaucratic ruling elite. As far as the council communists were concerned, the workers’ councils are sufficient for the transition to socialism, while any organization holding power above or beyond them would only counteract their ability to make changes favourable to the interests of the whole class.

Soon after disassociating themselves from the Bolsheviks and the Third International, the German and Dutch left communists began a critical analysis of the new “Soviet” regime and social system, characterizing it as state capitalist. Later, in the ‘30s, the council communists developed an analysis according to which the 1917 revolution was a bourgeois (rather than a proletarian) revolution and the Bolsheviks were (all along) radical defenders of capitalist development.

For the council communists, then, the central problem for the success of the proletarian revolution was the question of the development of revolutionary class consciousness throughout the whole of the working class; such development of political consciousness being the only guarantee against a vanguard party substituting itself for the whole class in the seizure and exercise of supreme power in the revolution. If the class was sufficiently conscious – and for them this was a matter of conscious collective action, rather than mere beliefs or ideas – the workers would not permit a vanguard group to usurp their collective power. As a result, all of their views on appropriate tactics for the radical workers’ movement were concerned primarily with fostering workers’ tendencies towards collective self-activity, self-initiative, and most importantly, self-organization.

Their experience in Germany, and their understanding of the Russian workers’ experience during the crucial years of 1917-21, convinced them that during such periods of acute social crisis of modern capitalist society, workers spontaneously generated forms and methods of collective action which permitted them to collectively control their struggle without any hierarchy or separate leadership. As a result, they fundamentally opposed not only vanguardist parties and their practice of ‘revolutionary parliamentarism’, but also working within trade unions in order to transform them into tools of revolutionary struggle. Their first-hand experience had irreversibly convinced them that all trade unions were fundamentally and unalterably tied to the continued domination of capital and the state over the working class, and further, that when necessary, workers would abandon the unions and create their own autonomous ‘factory committees’ to undertake the tasks usually left to the unions – as they had done in their hundreds of thousands in Germany in 1919-20. The stifling hierarchical and bureaucratic structure necessary for the day-to-day functioning of any large trade union in modern capitalist society could only act against the tendency of workers directly organizing and controlling their own struggles.

Syndicalist ‘revolutionary’ unions were rejected on the grounds that spontaneously generated councils and factory committees were the appropriate organizational forms for revolutionary action; while any union, no matter how ‘revolutionary’ in words, would necessarily be contaminated by ‘opportunism’ and reformism, since it would, in non-revolutionary periods, have to engage in collaboration and compromise with the forces of capitalist domination. For the council communists, the project of building and maintaining ‘strong organizations’ within modern capitalist society, as far as the revolutionary workers’ movement is concerned, is hopeless, since such organizations will require a powerful central bureaucracy to remain ‘strong’, while the forces of social control and ideological domination at the disposal of the ruling capitalist class would inevitably infect these organizations, rendering them incapable of revolutionary activity when such is demanded of them.

So how was it, then, that the workers’ councils permitted the class at large to co-ordinate and control their struggle without any hierarchy or separate leadership? The actual functioning of the early councils in Russia and Germany showed how: workers organized themselves in general assemblies at the point of production, debated and then collectively decided on courses of action, not just for themselves in their separate workplace, but for the whole social movement of which they form a part; then they elect council delegates who are explicitly mandated to defend only the positions collectively decided by their assembly; these delegates were also recallable (or revocable) at any time as decided by their assemblies; the delegates in the councils would attempt to reach agreement on which course of action to pursue, but if this was problematic they would then return to their respective assemblies, apprise all workers there of the situation, and then the assemblies would debate and collectively decide whether they would change or revise their positions, and re-mandate their delegates accordingly; in this way they would work out a solution, without delegating any power to a separate group of potential ‘leaders’.

In the radical activist upsurge of the 1960s, there occurred a revival of interest in council communism, but often this was from a perspective more libertarian and less marxist than was that of the original council communists. This new ‘councilism’ focused on issues of local autonomy and self-management, and ‘community’ concerns, rather than narrowly ‘economic’ and strictly ‘workerist’ matters.

Well known theorists of this tradition include Anton Pannekoek, Otto Ruhle, Jan Appel, Henk Canne-Meijer, Paul Mattick, Karl Korsch, Cajo Brendel, and, more recently, the ‘councilists’ Cornelius Castoriadas (a.k.a. Paul Cardan), Claude Lefort, and Henri Simon.

October 2000



The above text was written at the request of an acquaintance who is initiating a local ‘libertarian communist’ publication. It was written as a non-partisan introduction to council communism for a largely libertarian anti-capitalist readership. However, I wish to make it clear that although I defend many political positions which are often characterized as “council communist”, I do not consider myself to be a council communist; rather, I consider myself to be in the political tradition of the international communist left.

There are two key issues mentioned in the above text on which council communists and left communists (atleast those coming from the German-Dutch left) disagree. What follows is intended to clarify what the views of the author are on these disputes.

(I) In regard to the question of whether or not all political parties and organizations are necessarily vanguardist and counter-revolutionary, I refer to the following excerpts from a text written nearly thirty years ago:

“Revolutionaries develop because within capitalism because there is a class capable of revolutionary action. It isn’t the revolutionary minorities which will make the working class a revolutionary class. The process of realizing the necessity of socialism operates within the working class and manifests itself in the appearance of revolutionary groups. Through the development of different revolutionary tendencies, the working class shows the signs of its revitalization.

The revolutionaries’ role is to contribute to the development of a class position by working out the links between past and present working class activity, by elaborating a coherent theory which takes into consideration the objective development of capitalism and the needs of the future struggle, by diffusing their analyses as widely as possible and by developing a practice consonant with their political positions. It is obvious that the development of revolutionary consciousness is not a uniform process appearing in the whole working class at the same time and to the same degree. As with all living processes, this development will not be a homogeneous one but constantly influenced by events and social conditions.

Nothing is more absurd than for revolutionaries, that is, those who have made an effort to develop class consciousness to some degree, to put themselves on the sidelines of the effort to generalize consciousness out of fear that their efforts will be construed as ipso facto authoritarian or that their ideas will find only a limited response in the short run. Revolutionaries are not merely the result of changing social conditions, they must be an active factor as well.

In addition to contributing to the ongoing struggles of the working class as far as possible, the fundamental role of revolutionaries is to work towards the clarification of a revolutionary position which can serve for future struggles. The working class develops a more profound class consciousness through the confrontation of ideas among different political tendencies, through a constant critical approach towards its past struggles and present difficulties.

These essential functions cannot be effectively carried out through isolated individual work. They require a collective and organized effort because apart from praxis there can be no real consciousness and revolutionary praxis cannot be effectively undertaken on an individual level.

And later on:

“If revolutionary parties became instruments of the counter-revolution it is not because their very existence was ‘cursed’. A thorough-going analysis must be made to determine, on the one hand the false conceptions of the role and function of revolutionary groups which these parties defended, and on the other hand the specific historical reasons and the circumstances of the class struggle that led to these deformations and defeats.

In spite of the degeneration and bureaucratization of past revolutionary groups, in each new burst of activity the proletariat has continued to form new revolutionary groupings which can only be explained by the need to find a theoretical expression for the fundamental interests of the class.

Because the proletariat is an exploited class it suffers under the ideological sway of the ruling class. Its struggle for emancipation is impossible without a theoretical effort which can liberate it from the weight of bourgeois ideology.

Those who see no role for revolutionary groups ignore the complexity of working-class conditions and adopt an idealized and mistaken image of them: an image of the working class as a homogeneous entity automatically and simultaneously coming to consciousness one glorious day. Their superstitious aversion to any attempt to form political groups is tantamount to rejecting an essential aspect of revolutionary activity: the search for theoretical coherence.” (from “Leninism, Ouvrierism, or Marxism”, by Marc C. and Judith Allen, in Internationalism #2 (1971).)

(II) The Russian Revolution of 1917 was an act of the Russian working class; it was also the first step of an effort by the international working class (of that time) to bring about the world proletarian, anti-capitalist revolution. However, because of the various historical circumstances in which this effort – the various mass struggles and uprisings by workers around the world – took place, the process of conscious revolutionary struggle against capitalism was transformed into its opposite, into the defeat of the revolution, into, that is, the state capitalist counter-revolution (Stalinist, Fascist, and Democratic). That many previously revolutionary, proletarian political parties and organizations were implicated in this process made the defeat of the revolution – more particularly, the destruction of the revolutionary consciousness of the working class on a global scale – all the more thorough and lasting. Not least among these political organizations was the Bolshevik Party (while still under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky). And not least among the historical conditions in which the first international proletarian revolution became a bourgeois counter-revolution were the following essentially social democratic, bourgeois doctrines held by the (Lenin-led) Bolsheviks, viz. (i) that the taking of supreme political power necessary for the success of the proletarian, anti-capitalist revolution cannot be “organized or directed except by a political party” (from a resolution of the 2nd Congress of the Communist International, 1920); and (ii) that strengthening state capitalism in Russia was a necessary step towards the elimination of capitalism there, and its replacement by socialism. This is not to deny in any way that the primary factor in the explanation of the defeat of the revolution was the failure of attempts by the working class in countries outside of Russia to overthrow the power of the capitalist state there and join up with the revolution in Russia; and all of those failures were the result of a level of development of the political consciousness of the working class insufficient for the success of their revolution. (Of course, this last ‘explanation’ is axiomatic, or tautological.)

November 2000