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Council communism (also councilism) is a current of socialist thought that emerged from the November Revolution in the 1920s, characterized by its opposition to state capitalism/state socialism and its advocacy of workers' councils as the basis for dismantling the class state. Strong in Germany and the Netherlands during the 1920s, council communism continues to exist today within the greater socialist and communist movement.
As the Second International decayed at the beginning of World War I, socialists who opposed nationalism and supported proletarian internationalism regrouped. In Germany, two major communist trends emerged. First, the Spartacus League was created by the radical socialist Rosa Luxemburg. The second trend emerged amongst the German rank-and-file trade unionists who opposed their unions and organized increasingly radical strikes towards the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. This second trend created the German Left Communist movement that would become the KAPD after the abortive German Revolution of 1918–19.
As the Communist International inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia formed, a Left Communist tendency developed in the Comintern's German, Dutch and Bulgarian sections. Key figures in this milieu were Anton Pannekoek, Otto Rühle and Herman Gorter. In the United Kingdom, Sylvia Pankhurst's group, the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), also identified with the Left Communist tendency.
Alongside these formal Left Communist tendencies, the Italian group led by Amadeo Bordiga is often commonly recognized as a Left Communist party, although both Bordiga and the Italian Communist Left disputed this and qualified their politics as separate, distinct and more in line with the Third International's positions than the politics of Left Communism. Bordiga himself did not advocate abstention from the unions, although later Italian Left currents developed a critique of the "regime unions", positing that most or all unions had become tools of capitalism by submitting themselves to bourgeois interests and were no longer viable as organs of class struggle. Nevertheless, those "Bordigists" who put forward this critique still held out the necessity of "red unions" or "class unions" re-emerging, outside and against the regime unions, which would openly advocate class struggle and allow the participation of communist militants.
Despite a common general direction, and despite sharing the criticism of Lenin, there were few politics held in common between these movements. An example of this divergence is that the Italians supported the Right of Nations to Self Determination, while the Dutch and Germans rejected this policy (seeing it as a form of bourgeois nationalism). However, all of the Left Communist tendencies opposed what they called "Frontism". Frontism was a tactic endorsed by Lenin, where Communists sought tactical agreements with reformist (social democratic) parties in pursuit of a definite, usually defensive, goal. In addition to opposing "Frontism", the Dutch-German tendency, the Bulgarians and British also refused to participate in bourgeois elections, which they denounced as parliamentarism.
In Germany, the Left Communists were expelled from the Communist Party of Germany, and they formed the Communist Workers Party (KAPD). Similar parties were formed in the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Britain. The KAPD rapidly lost most of its members and it eventually dissolved. However, some of its militants had been instrumental in organising factory-based unions like the AAUD and AAUD-E, the latter being opposed to separate party organisation (see: Syndicalism).
The leading theoreticians of the KAPD had developed a new series of ideas based on their opposition to party organisation, and their conception of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia as having been a bourgeois revolution. Their leading figures were Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter and Otto Rühle. Rühle later left the KAPD, and was one of the founders of the AAUD-E. Another leading theoretician of Council Communism was Paul Mattick, who later emigrated to the USA. A minor figure in the Council Communist movement in the Netherlands was Marinus van der Lubbe, who was accused of the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 and consequently executed by the nazis after a show trial that marked the beginning of the persecution of socialist and communists in Nazi Germany.
The early councilists are followed later by the Group of Internationalist Communists, Henk Meijer, Cajo Brendel and Paul Mattick, Sr. There was a resurgence of councilist groups and ideas in the 1960s, through the Situationist International, Root and Branch in the United States, Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, and Solidarity in the UK.
Alongside and sometimes connected to the councilists were the early Hegelian Marxists, György Lukács (a council communist himself from 1918–21 or 22) and Karl Korsch (who turned to council communism in the 1930s).
Chief among the tenets of Council Communism is its opposition to the party vanguardism and democratic centralism of Leninist Ideologies and its contention that democratic workers' councils arising in the factories and municipalities are the natural form of working class organization and authority. Council Communism also stands in contrast to Social Democracy through its formal rejection of both the reformism and Parliamentarism.
Council communism and the Soviets in the Russian Revolution
During the Russian Revolution of 1917, councils akin to those advocated by Council Communists were a significant political and organizational force; with the Russian word "soviet" itself meaning council. After the success of the February Revolution, the Bolsheviks sought to capitalize on the influence of the soviets in order to boost their own popularity. Bolshevik leaders advocated the transference of authority to the soviets and the dissolution of Russian Provisional Government by means of a second revolution. When this campaign was successful and the October Revolution occurred, the creation of the Congress of Soviets marked the beginning of a process by which the genuine workers' control of the soviets was diminished and the decisions of the Bolshevik Party acquired the full authority of the State. By the time new regime had developed into a single-party system, the Supreme Soviet (successor to the Congress of Soviets) had been relegated to the role of a rubber-stamp parliament, meeting just once a year to ratify decisions already made at higher levels, in most cases without even a single dissenting vote. Real power was concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
On the topic of the Russian Revolution, Council Communists maintain that the February Revolution and the soviets of the era were proletarian in nature. However, in their view, the ascent of the Bolsheviks and the following creation of a party bureaucracy constituted a "bourgeois revolution"; with the Soviet Union itself being an example of state capitalism rather than the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. With the Soviet state's exclusive control over the utilization of capital, it is argued by Council Communists that the party bureaucracy had simply taken the place of individual capitalists and established its own form of capitalist class relations; emphasized in part by the continued defence and perpetuation of capitalist relations after the revolution by means of the New Economic Policy.