To Serge BRICIANER (1923-1997), Council Communist.
Die Arbeiterräte werden einmal das Wesen
Der ganzen Menschheit auf Erden
So als in Blumen in einer grossen Garbe
Das höchste Sonnenlicht zusammen gelesen.
Sie sind das Höchste des Allegemein-Seins
Sie sind das Verwerfen des Alleins-Seins,
Darin jeder Mann, Frau und zartes Kind
Allein sein einzig Ziel, die Menschheit findet.
Die Arbeiterräte sind darum wie das Licht
Sie sind der Friede, die Ruhe und das Heil,
Sie sind die Wahrheit und die Quelle der Wahrheit.
Sie sind die Festigheit im grossen Ganzen
Der Menschheit, die Knotepunkte der Arbeit,
Sie sind das Gluck der Menschheit - sie sind das Licht.
(Herman GORTER, De Arbeidersraad)
in the theory of the Dutch–German Communist Left
The decisive importance of the Workers’ Councils for the New Workers’ Movement, born from the ruins of the First World War, was still noted before the revolutionary wave of 1917-1921, which let grow up these organisations from huge proletarian earthquake in so different countries as Germany, Hungary, Austria and Russia. It is in this last country, where appeared in 1905 the first Workers’ councils, that that last organisation’s form seemed to be the final form of the first Workers’ self-government since the Commune of Paris.
The contribution of the Dutch Left, or rather of the Dutch-German Left, for the theoretical reflection on the Workers’ councils, is not only a simple recognition of this form of revolutionary praxis of the proletariat on the way of its emancipation. It holds initially in the recognition of the spiritual factor, i.e. factor consciousness, to give life to the struggle’s forms of the proletariat.
Initially, without any philosophy of action, the proletariat should be unable to emancipate itself. The objective factors (those of the crisis), those of organisation (trade unions and party) of leading minorities were not enough. Was absent an essential factor: the factor of the masses, animated by consciousness of its revolutionary aim.
For that the contribution of Dietzgen is fundamental to explain the birth of the Dutch Communist left and the development of the theory of the Workers’ Councils by Pannekoek.
The influence of Dietzgen
For the Dutch left, the revolution is not a product of rough material forces, like in the physical field, but primarily a question of development of the spirit: there is initially a victory of the spirit before all material victory.
This is the reason why its adversaries often presented it as an "idealist current".
The Dutch Left was a Marxist current which, like all the "radicals", such as Rosa Luxemburg, underlined importance of the consciousness factor in the class struggle, factor that in these times was defined –according to the terminology– as "spiritual factor".
The intellectual guide of the Dutch Marxists, throughout their first fights against the Revisionism and the mechanicism of the "Vulgate-makers" of the Marxism, was incontestably Joseph Dietzgen.
The socialist philosopher Josef Dietzgen (1828-1888) had been greeted, after the publication of his book The Nature of Brainwork [Das Wesen der Kopfarbeit] (1) in 1869, as one of the major inventors of the dialectical materialism, as well as Marx, and Engels, in his famous booklet Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (1888). Engels greeted the methodological identity between him, Marx and Dietzgen: "And this materialist dialectic, which for years has been our best working tool and our sharpest weapon, was, remarkably enough, discovered not only by us but also, independently of us and even of Hegel, by a German worker, Joseph Dietzgen.". (2) In spite of this compliment by the author of the Anti-Dühring, the philosophical Works of Dietzgen met a weak echo from the principal theorists of the IId International. Those judged Dietzgen’s philosophy as a pale repetition of Marx, in the worst case a suspect emanation of idealism. Franz Mehring criticised a dialectics "deprived of knowledge", victim of a certain "confusion". (3) Plekhanov found no any original contribution to the materialist theory and rejected with scorn the "confusion" of a theory which seemed to him too idealist, and even a retreat comparing it to the "Materialists" of the XVIIIth century. He believed to detect at Dietzgen an attempt "to reconcile opposition between idealism and materialism". (4) This mistrust could be explained partly by the broad echo met by Dietzgen, among certain idealist circles, which tried to work out together with the son of Dietzgen the so-called "Dietzgenism". (5) In full theoretical fight against the misadventures of the "Dietzgenism" and the "Machism" (theory of the physicist Mach) the Russian and German left-wing Socialists transfer the dressing-up of a neo-idealism there. This opinion was far from being shared by Lenin and the mass of the Bolshevik militants (6), who, like the Dutch Left, would find in Dietzgen a spiritual "Master" vis-à-vis a fatalistic and mechanicist vision conveyed by the so-called "historical materialism" underestimating the activity of consciousness in the class struggle.
The interest of the Marxist Left for Dietzgen consisted not only in the materialist critic of the speculative philosophy (Kant and Hegel), but also in the rejection of the vulgar materialist conception of the mind, defined as a simple reflection of the Matter. Dietzgen rejected the rigid distinction made by the idealists and the vulgar materialists of the XVIIIth century between "mind" (Geist) and "matter". The brain was not a simple external receptacle of the tangible world, but before all the field of the activity of the thought. The spiritual (geistig) work of the brain appeared with the elaboration of the sensitive objects under the form of concepts gathering it in an indissociable totality and unity. From where a rejection of empiricism, which thus, joining the idealism, considers that the Matter is eternal, imperishable, and immutable. Actually, for dialectical and historical materialism "the Matter consists in the change, the matter is what changes and the only thing which remains is the change". (7) It follows that any knowledge is relative knowledge; it is not possible outside "given limits". Lastly, this relative knowledge of material substance can take place only by an active intervention of the consciousness. This consciousness, called "spirit" (Geist), establishes dialectical relations with the matter. There exist a permanent interaction between "mind " and "matter ": "The spirit is a matter for the things and the things a matter for the spirit. Spirit and things exist only by their relations." (8)
The Dietzgen’s theory was not in contradiction with that of Marx and Engels. Often, at the price of awkwardness of terminology, it prolonged it by developing a "science of the human spirit ". This "spirit " was a complex of indissociable qualities: consciousness, unconsciousness, moral, psychology, and rationality. From a revolutionary point of view, the contribution of Dietzgen had been characterised by triple insistence: a) importance of the theory, as apprehension and radical transformation of reality; and consequently rejection of any reductionist empiricism ; b) the relativity of the theory changing with the change of " the social matter"; c) the active role of the consciousness upon reality, of which it is not the reflection but the contents itself. Such a systematisation of the essential lessons of Marxism constituted in fact a tool against any reduction of Marxism to pure economic fatalism and against any fossilisation of the assets of method and results of the historical materialism.
All the Dutch Tribunist chiefs, Gorter, Pannekoek and Roland Holst were filled with enthusiasm for Dietzgen at the point to study it thoroughly, to comment on it and to translate it (9). Insisting on the role of the "spirit " and in the class struggle was a direct call to Workers’ spontaneity overflowing the rigid framework of the social democrat and labour bureaucracy. It was a direct call to the fight against the Revisionist doubts and the fatalism which regarded capitalism as "eternal" and "imperishable", like the matter. It was especially a call to energy and enthusiasm of the working class in its fight against the existing system, fight which required consciousness, spirit of sacrifice and has its cause, in short in moral and intellectual qualities. This call to new proletarian ethics, the Dutch Marxists found it or believed to discover it in the Writings of Dietzgen (10). By the critic of the traditional bourgeois materialism and popularised and simplified Marxism, the Dutch theorists developed in fact a new form of "proletarian" morals and class-consciousness. Dietzgen was for them only one revealing direction of Marxism, whose concepts had been distorted by the Reformist vision.
In the Dutch Left, however, the interpretation of the role of the "spirit" in the class struggle diverged. Interpretation of Dietzgen by Roland Holst was nothing less than idealist mixture of enthusiasm and morals, a religious vision minimising the recourse to violence in the fight against capitalism. (11). Gorter, much more "materialist", was more voluntarist, giving an interpretation, centred on the subjective conditions of deed, defined as "spiritual": "The spirit must be revolutionised. The prejudices, cowardice must be extirpated. Of all the things, the most important is spiritual propaganda. Knowledge, spiritual force, here take precedence and are essential as the most necessary thing. Only knowledge gives a good organisation, a good trade-unions’ movement, right policy and by that improvements in the economic and political leadership." (12) And Gorter, qualified sometimes of idealist and "Illuminist" (13), took care to give especially militant contents in the "spiritual" factor, by excluding any fatalism: "The social force which pushes us is not a died destiny, an disobedient matter mass. It is the society, it is an alive force... We do not make the history of our own will, but let us do we it. "(14) For Pannekoek, on the other hand, the spiritual factor results in the development of the theory. This one is as much a method of economy of the thought, in pure "knowledge", that a conscious and rational knowledge, whose role is "to withdraw the will from the very powerful, direct, instinctive impulse, and to subordinate it to conscious and rational knowledge. The theoretical knowledge allows the worker to escape the influence of immediate and restricted interest for benefit of the general proletarian class interest, to align its action on the long-term interest of socialism.". (15) For Pannekoek the role of the "spirit" fits into the "spiritual science", which means development of critical and scientific weapons against the bourgeois ideology.
Forms of class consciousness in the Dutch Left
The power of the proletariat, according to the Marxist Left, lies not solely in its number (concentration) and its economic importance. It becomes a class for itself (in oneself and for oneself) [in sich and für sich] as it becomes aware not only of its force, but of its particular interests and aim. Consciousness [Bewusstsein] gives the working class existence in the history. Any consciousness is self-consciousness [Selbstbewusstsein]: "It is only thanks to its class consciousness that the great number transforms into a number for the class itself and that the latter manages to seize that it is essential to the production; it is only thanks to it that the proletariat can satisfy its interests, to achieve its aim. Only the class-consciousness allows this huge and musculous body to reaching existence and to being capable of action. " (16)
In a traditional way, in the Marxist movement, Pannekoek and the current of the Dutch Left analysed the various degrees of class-consciousness, in their historical dimension. At the start, there is no completed allocated consciousness or class consciousness, to take again the formulation of Lukacs (17) –such as it would be conditionally and ideally if it had arrived at maturity. The primitive form of the class-consciousness, essential to the fight, lies in "the instinct of the masses "or "the class instinct". While showing that this instinct, which appears in the spontaneous action, is one "to act given by feeling it immediate, in opposition to acting it founded on an intelligent reflection ", Pannekoek affirmed that "the instinct of the masses was the lever of the political and revolutionary development of the humanity". (18) In a way somewhat Sorelian, this aporia had the appearance of a glorification of "the sure instinct of class". It of it was nothing. For Pannekoek, this instinct was "the immediate class consciousness ", not trimmed, not yet arrived at its political and socialist form. In its polemic against the Kautskyist Revisionists, in connection with the spontaneous actions of the masses, it was frequent for the Dutch Left to underline "the healthy one and sure " instinct of class. This one was actually the interest of class of the workers, paralysed by the bureaucratised apparatuses of the trade unions and the party.
The Dutch Marxism, comparable often with the spontaneist current (19), did not have the worship of spontaneity: the class-consciousness did not have anything "spontaneous"; it was not connected with "an irrational mystic" of action, as at Sorel. Stressing that this class-consciousness was neither a social psychology of group nor an individual consciousness, the Dutch Marxism gave a definition very far away from any spontaneism:
• the consciousness in the proletariat is a collective will, organised like a body; its form is necessarily the organisation which gives unity and cohesion to the exploited class: "Organisation gathers within a single framework individuals who before were atomised. Before the organisation, the will of each one was directed independently of all the others; organisation means unity of all the individual wills acting in the same direction. As a long time as the various atoms are directed in all directions, they neutralise each one other, and the addition of their actions is equal to zero." (20)
• this consciousness was not a pure reflection of the economic struggles of the proletariat. It took a political form, whose most worked out highest expression and, was the socialist theory, which made it possible the proletariat to exceed the "instinctive" and still unconscious stage of fight to reach the stage of mature action, tensing itself towards the Communist aim: "It is the setting in work of the socialist theory, fundamentally scientific, which will contribute as well to give to the movement a quiet and sure course as to transform unconscious instinct into conscious act of the men. " (21)
With this organisation and this theory, which he sometimes calls "knowledge", Pannekoek added the discipline, freely authorised, like cement of the consciousness.
This conception of the Dutch Marxist Left was to the antipodes of the Lenin’s substitutionism expressed in What is to be done?, in 1903, according to which the consciousness was injected outside by "bourgeois intellectuals ". It diverged as much from the spontaneist current, rejecting all form of organisation. It was not any doubt for the Dutch Left that the class-consciousness had two indissociable dimensions: theoretical profundity, that of the "knowledge" (qualitative aspect) accumulated by the historical experience, and its extent in the mass (the transformation of quality into quantity). For this reason, the Dutch and German Marxists stressed the decisive importance of the mass strikes, at the same time "spontaneous "and "organised ", for the massive development of the class consciousness.
This position was in the right path of the Marx ‘s theory of the consciousness. (22) After 1905 and the first Russian revolution, contrary to appearances, it differed (until 1917) little from that of Lenin, which at that time wrote that "class instinct", "spontaneity" and socialist education of the proletariat were indissolubly dependent: "The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Socialist and more than 10 years of activity of the Social Democracy made much to transform this spontaneity into consciousness." (23) In the Marxist Left before 1914, there was still a real convergence in the apprehension of the question of the class-consciousness.
2. The mass strikes and the united organisation of the proletariat
The mass strike was the form, finally found, of class-consciousness. This one would depend on the vacuum, if it were not concretised finally by building the organisation of all the proletarians and by fighting for all the economic and political power against the Capitalist State.
The debate on the mass strikes in the IId International before 1905
Until the beginning of the century, before the first Russian revolution of 1905 does burst, the debates in the IId International on the revolutionary means of action of the proletariat were limited and inserted in the vice of the congress resolutions on the general strike. The general strike recommended by the Anarchist currents was rejected as contrary to the tactics and the strategy of the Workers’ movement. Defended as an "ill-advised" method "to make the revolution" in the absence of working-class political organisations, it became the prerogative of the revolutionary syndicalism (24). Rejecting any parliamentary tactics and any long-term strategy of organisation for the Workers’ movement, the revolutionary syndicalism made of it a theory of "acting minorities" and a "revolutionary gymnastics" necessary and sufficient to maintain, by "the direct action", the spirit of rebellion of the working masses. For Sorel and his partisans, the general strike was at the same time a brutal catastrophe ("the Great evening ") putting an end to capitalism in only one decisive action, and an idealistic myth giving to the masses a quasi-religious faith in the achievement of the revolution. Upon the departure, the debate on the general strike was a fight between two opposite currents: Anarchism or Revolutionary Syndicalism and Marxism, whose stake was the organised political activity of the proletariat to prepare the subjective conditions of the revolution. Waves of generalised and mass strikes, starting from the beginning of the century, allowed that the debate on the "general strike" ceased being a theoretical fight between Marxism and Anarchism and became crucial debate on the course of the revolution within the Marxist camp, and the splitting point between Marxists and Reformists or Revisionists.
The general strike, as fight policy against the capitalist system, was since the beginnings of the Workers’ movement in full centre of its concrete concerns. It was used for the first time in 1842 by the English Chartist movement. At the end of a long economic depression, reducing the wages of the workers, and in the context of a Chartist Petition, for the universal vote, a movement of spontaneous strikes, extending from England to Scotland and Wales, spread during three weeks, concerning 3 million workers. Without true organisation, without leadership, but also without clear political prospects, the strike failed. In a characteristic way, this general "strike", which was rather a generalised strike, was double: economic and political. It was a spontaneous, massive action, without preliminary organisation.
At the time of the First International, the general strike was recommended in 1868, during the international congress of Brussels, like political mean to prevent the future wars. But this decision of the congress did not have any practical effect.
In the IId International, the question of "the general strike" arose under a double aspect: of conclusive strike for the political and economic rights of the proletariat; and of means of antimilitarist fight against the danger of war. In 1892, the general strike was used for the first time as policy of conquest of the universal vote; second general strike, called by the Belgian Workers’ Party (POB), allowed to obtain the plural vote for the male people. Consequently, the use of the general strike will be practically posed during all the congresses of the IId International.
The congresses of Brussels (1891), Zurich (1893) and London (1896) marked a final demarcation with anarchism. This one, which recommended "the universal general strike" as a universal panacea against the war and for the revolution, was expelled, and its theses on the general strike were rejected. The International initially recommended partial strikes, as means of realising the economic and political tasks of the proletariat, and in order to accelerate the organisation of the proletariat, preliminary for setting an international movement. In one period marked by fights for reforms, for the organisation of the proletariat into a conscious class, the conditions for an international revolutionary mass action were not given. This position was always that of the Marxist Left until the first symptoms of a new historical period of revolutionary fights appeared as clear as day. The conditions of the time before 1905, where coexisted revolutionaries and Reformists in the same organisational framework, allowed the Revisionist elements to prevent all basic debate on the means of action of the proletariat: partial strikes, general strike, mass strikes. In 1900, with the congress of Paris, the Revisionist chief of the German trade unions Karl Legien could proclaim, without any discussion: "As a long time as strong organisations are not present there cannot be for us discussion on the general strike." (25).
From 1901, the concrete problem of the mass strikes of the workers, and either the abstract problem of an international general strike, arose in the reality of the class struggle, on the economic terrain as on the political terrain. In 1901, in Barcelona, the strike of the railwaymen burst; to difference of other categorical conflicts, leaded by trade unions, this conflict extended to the metallurgists. In 1902, burst strikes for the right of universal suffrage as well in Sweden as in Belgium. In, 1903 mass strikes spread in Russia, little time after the generalised strikes of the railways in the Netherlands. But especially in 1904 in Italy , the mass strikes give on the agenda the discussion on general strikes and mass strikes. At the autumn 1904, a series of workers’ uprisings overwhelmed whole the Mezzogiorno. A terrible repression led the Chamber of work of Milan to proclaim the general strike at once. This one was propagated in all Italy, and during four days, the workers occupied the factories, and for the first time in the history of the Workers’ movement, in several large industrial towns of the North (26), were formed workers’ councils. Soon all would return in "the order ". This spontaneous movement of the workers, left without watchword of the trade unions and the socialist party, by its generalisation and its organisation preceded the Russian Revolution of 1905. The question of "general strike" and "mass strikes" from now on could be apprehended only in all its international significance.
In front of the huge wave of international class struggle, the Dutch SDAP was charged to present for the international Congress of Amsterdam (1904) a report on the general strike. The first reason was the experience of the Dutch Workers’ movement, becoming hardened which two mass strikes the same year 1903. But, especially, within the SDAP, two tendencies had crystallised, which were found in the parties of the International. The Revisionist tendency, expressed by Vliegen and Van Kol and supported by Troelstra, rejected the general strike as political weapon of fight; it saw there "an act of despair" of the proletariat, from which the consequence would be to isolate it from the middle-classes; it proposed to stick only to the parliamentary action. The Marxist tendency, grouped around the review De Nieuwe Tijd (Van der Goes, Gorter, Roland Holst, Pannekoek) presented a report for the congress of Dordrecht (1904), of extreme importance for the clarification of the concept of "general strike". It proposed to replace it by that of "political strike": "The term of general strike is incorrect. That of political strike expresses our intentions better." (27) This congress came out a resolution of compromise, written by Henriëtte Roland Holst, and which will be useful for the international Congress of Amsterdam.
The resolution of the international congress, introduced by Roland Holst, was a step ahead insofar as it proclaimed "possible" the bursting of general strikes like "a supreme means to carry out decisive social changes or to defend oneself against all reactionary attempt perpetrated on the rights of the workers". Very classically, the resolution invited the workers to reinforce their "class organisations", precondition of the success of the political strike, and warned against the use of the general strike by the Anarchists in an "ill-advised" direction. But, concession to the Revisionist tendencies, Roland Holst declared – in advance – "impossible the complete suspension of any work at a given and impracticable time", "because such a strike would return the existence of each one – like that of the proletariat ". (28) But, a few months later the great general strike in Italy contradicted this forecast.
In fact, the presentation of the resolution by Roland Holst much more clearly posed the problems set by "the general strike". She used the term of "mass strike", by showing that this one did not have "an economic goal" in oneself, but was used, in a defensive way, " against the Capitalist State ".
Nevertheless, sign of confusion of the time, she employed the term of "general strike" to proclaim that this one "could not be the social revolution".
A few months hardly after the congress closure, the Russian Revolution swept in practice all the old formulations and all the forecasts. The movement of mass strikes in Russia, distinct from the general strike, showed that a massive fight of the proletariat was as much on an economic terrain as political. It was as well defensive as offensive; the general organisation of the workers was not the precondition but the consequence of the deepening of the movement. Directed "against the capitalist State", it was necessarily a stage of "the social revolution".
At the same time, in January 1905, the minors of the Ruhr Revier entered massively and spontaneously in strike, without following any trade-union instruction. The leadership of the trade unions prevented any extension of the strike. In May 1905, at the trade-union congress of Cologne, the trade-union leader Bömelburg decided against the mass strikes and declared: "To build our organisations, we need calm in the Workers’ movement". (29) Thus, in the country where the proletariat was the best organised throughout the world, the practical movement of the workers ran up against the organisations which it had patiently built; to affirm itself it was to carry out the fight outwards and even against those, without any preliminary and permanent organisation to direct it. The year 1905 posed for the whole of the Workers’ movement not only the problem of the form (generalisation, self-organisation, and spontaneity) but also that of the contents of the mass strikes: reforms or revolution.
The Dutch-German Left and the mass strikes. Roland Holst and Rosa Luxemburg
The analysis of the phenomenon of the mass strikes started well before 1905 in the left-wing Marxist movement. Initially initiated by Rosa Luxemburg, it was continued by Roland Holst, in the Dutch Left, in 1905, then taken again, with a depth increased by Luxemburg and finally Pannekoek. The positions of the Marxist Left in Germany and in the Netherlands, which appear most coherent, cannot be considered independently of those of the Russian Left, of Trotsky in particular, with whom an obvious theoretical convergence appears.
The first to use the term of "political mass strike" was precisely the Russian Parvus (30), who in 1905 recommended the mass action as means of defence of the proletariat against the State, of which could rise the social revolution. Recommended in reaction against the practical Revisionism of the German party, "the political mass strike" was rejected by the leadership of the SPD and the "left wing" too, represented then by Kautsky and Mehring. But it is Rosa Luxemburg who, since 1902, - at the time where the general strike was proclaimed by the Belgian Workers’ Party, and carried out within a strictly legalist framework, to be finally stopped -, considered all the consequences of its use by the proletariat. Defending the "political general strike" as an "extra-parliamentary" action not having to be sacrificed to the parliamentary action, she showed that such an action was without real effect if there were not behind it "the threatening spectrum of the free rise of the popular movement, the spectrum of the revolution". (31) While condemning the Anarchist slogan of "general strike " as a "universal panacea", she stressed that it was about one of "the oldest watchwords of the modern Workers’ movement". The general strike corresponded in fact to an "accidental political strike ", not being able to be issued nor controlled. Like for the revolutions of the past, one had to understand it as one of "the elementary social phenomena produced by a natural force having its source in the class character of the modern society ". As such, she raised the question of the necessary use of class violence as "irreplaceable means of offensive", "as well in the various episodes of the class struggles as for the final conquest of the State power". And, in a prophetic forecast, she concluded that if Social Democracy "were really warned to give up in advance and once for all violence, if it warned to urge the Workers’ masses to respect the bourgeois legality, all its political struggle, in first place parliamentary, would collapse piteously, soon or later, to take place to the domination without end of the reactionary violence ".
The Russian revolution in 1905, starting as mass strike, and culminating into the December insurrection, allowed the Marxist Left in Germany and the Netherlands to specify the revolutionary conception, vis-à-vis the rejection or tepid acceptance of the mass strike by the social democracy. Rejected by the Revisionists, mass strike had been reluctantly accepted by the Iena congress of the SPD in September 1905. The resolution presented by August Bebel, which was however greeted as "a victory" by the Left, recommended the mass strike only as "defensive weapon" and supported that the Russian events could not be used as example for the Workers’ movement in Occident (32). A few months after, in February 1906, a secret conference of SPD and trade unions were held to prevent any propagation of the mass strikes by the German proletariat.
Vis-à-vis such an attitude which showed through already in 1905, Kautsky, who represented the left of the SPD, required of Roland Holst to write a booklet on General Strike and Social Democracy. This one appeared in June 1905, prefaced by himself. This booklet gave political conclusions on the revolutionary mass strikes in Russia, which will be taken again by all the Left:
Lastly, Roland Holst specified the subjective and objective conditions of such a mass strike: organisation, as self-education of the proletariat, discipline, class consciousness, qualities whose compost is the concentration of the proletariat in large factories. All these qualities necessary to the success of the revolution will be always underlined by the Dutch Left, Pannekoek more particularly.
But Roland Holst showed also a certain "centrist vision" near to Kautsky, in what she did not see yet " contradiction between parliamentarism and political mass strike", while announcing the decline "of bourgeois parliamentarism contradictorily ". She saw especially the danger –in contradiction with its analyses– that the mass strike run towards insurrection: "There is the danger that the masses do not recognise clearly the political goal of the strike, which is demonstration or pressure, and will conceive it as a final fight, oriented towards the destruction of capitalism." (33)
The question was in fact to know whether the revolutionary mass strike in Russia had opened a new revolutionary historical period, whose lessons were universally valid, including for the best organised Workers’ movement of the Occident, whose struggles had always been defined by Social Democracy as purely "defensive".
The booklet of Rosa Luxemburg Mass strike, party and trade unions, published in 1906, but victim of censure (34), was a scathing attack launched against the Reformists of the SPD and trade unions leadership. It converged with the conclusions of Roland Holst. But the theoretical framework of Rosa Luxemburg was much fuller. Animated by a true revolutionary passion, more critical towards the SPD and trade unions bureaucracy than Roland Holst, much more critical towards the parliamentary activity, this booklet can be regarded as the first revolutionary Manifest of the Dutch-German Left-wing Current. The most decisive points were the following:
• There was no "Western way" to socialism, defined by a parliamentary strategy and a peaceful evolution of the Workers’ movement. The lessons of the Russian Revolution were universal, valid for all the countries, including the most developed ones: "The mass strike seems thus not like a specifically Russian product of the absolutism, but a universal form of fight of the proletarian class determined by the present degree of capitalist development and the classes’ balance. A backward country... shows to the proletariat of Germany and to the most advanced capitalist countries the coming ways and methods of class struggle." (35)
• The mass strike was neither an accidental phenomenon –term used by Rosa Luxemburg in 1902– nor a single action, like the general strikes, but a "whole period of class struggles spreading over several years, sometimes over decades".
• The historical period of mass strikes revealed the new revolutionary age in a sudden appearance: "The mass strike is simply the form taken by the revolutionary fight... It is the alive pulsation of the revolution and at the same time its most powerful engine". And in a very affirmative way, Luxemburg sustained that the revolutionary process was present at the start in any mass strike: "actually it is not the mass strike which engenders the revolution, but the revolution which engenders the mass strike".
• The mass strike, as alive phenomenon, could not be dissected, it did not break up itself in rigid categories, to draw a diagrammatic picture of classification; it embraced all forms of class struggle, economic and political, which give an united fighting proletariat, of which the categories and divisions are erased for the benefit of whole the working class: "economic and political strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, strikes of demonstration or fights, general strikes concerning particular sectors or whole cities, specific wage claims or street battles, fights on the barricades, all these forms of fight cross or are close, are crossed or overflowed one on the other: it is an ocean of phenomena eternally new and fluctuating... "; "there are not two species of fight distinct from the working class, one of political nature, and the other of economic nature, it exists only one big fight there aiming at the same time limiting the effects of the capitalist exploitation and at the same time at removing this exploitation as the bourgeois society."
• The class consciousness was not generated and did not develop solely in the mould of the already existing organisations (parties and trade unions), by a long "education", but more especially in the course of the revolution, where it becomes "concrete and active": the revolution accelerates the awakening of the proletariat and gives quickly to it the best "education", that of the struggle, which requires "sums of idealism".
• It was an error to believe that the organisation (trade union and party) could bureaucratically and mechanically generate the class struggles. On the contrary, the fight gives birth to the general organisation of the proletariat: "It is alive dialectical evolution... given birth to the organisation as a product of the struggle ". If reorganisation of the proletariat as a whole was born from the fight, it did not give there " spontaneist" rejection of the political organisation. This one remained "the most enlightened and the most conscious avant-garde of the proletariat". Only, its role and its function changed; they not existed any more "to educate", organise and lead technically the class struggle, but to orientate it politically: "... the task of the Social Democracy will consist not in the preparation or the technical leading of the strike, but in the political leading of the whole the movement. "
This booklet incontestably was used as theoretical and political basis for the current of the German and Dutch Marxist Left, and later of the Left-wing Communism, as from 1919. The significant "absent" one, as well at Roland Holst as at Luxemburg and Pannekoek, ever mentioned in all the texts, was the Workers’ Soviet of Petrograd, whose role had been huge in the first Russian revolution; never role and function of The Workers’ Councils were analysed. Within the framework of polemics against Revisionism and Reformism, Luxemburg quoted only the example of the creation of the Russian trade unions in 1905, to oppose it to the trade unions leaded by the German Reformists. Only, and in an isolated way, Trotsky –and without having echo in the Dutch-German Left before 1914 – underlined the fundamental role of The Workers’ Councils as "the self-organisation of the proletariat ", of which the goal is the fight "for the conquest of the revolutionary power" (36). In addition, hardly mentioned by Roland Holst, the question of the State and of its destruction, as Capitalist State, at the end of the revolution, was not approached by Rosa Luxemburg. When the discussion took place again, as from 1909, Pannekoek, for first time, analysed the most clearly this question.
Offensive or defensive. The fight against the Kautskyist "Centre"
The revolutionary mass strikes in Russia had had a considerable echo in Occident, contrary to the assertions of the Reformists. In 1905, in Germany, there had been 500.000 strikers, more in one year that during the decade 1890-1900; more than any year between 1848 and 1917. (37) The SPD electoral failure of 1907, after the nationalist wave of elections known as the "Hottentot" ballot, –of the name of a tribe of the African South-west crushed by the German imperialism -, the weakness of the class struggle from 1907 to 1909 allowed Reformism to publicly reinforce in Germany. This phenomenon of reinforcement of the Reformist wing and of the Revisionist currents was of international nature. The Marxist Left in Holland had made the bitter experience of it. In Russia, in the POSDR, rose a so-called "Liquidationist" current, favourable to legalism and common action with the liberals (K.D.). The international Congress of Stuttgart (1907), in spite of the very radical amendment suggested by Lenin, Luxemburg and Martov for the transformation of a possible coming war into revolution, showed a very clear evolution of the leadership of the social-democrat parties towards capitulation on all the principle questions.
From 1910, the debate on the mass strikes and the revolution, that the leadership of the SPD believed to have buried, will re-appear. Initially, under the effect of starting unemployment and collapsing wages, the strikes rise again massively. In the second place, with the threats of world war increasingly more precise, the question of the use of mass strike as weapon mobilising the proletariat against these threats arises in all seriousness. Lastly, in a general way, the social-democrat leaders, refusing to use as "weapon" the mass strike recommend a policy of peaceful demonstrations and general strikes for electoral reforms and universal suffrage. This policy of demobilisation on the parliamentary terrain was practised since 1909 in Germany, since 1911 in the Netherlands (the so-called "Red Tuesdays") (38); and in 1913 in Belgium.
At this time the ideological splitting within the orthodox Marxist Current in Germany was effective. Kautsky adopted the Bebel’s Reformist positions and approached Bernstein who, on the mass strikes’ question, defended a "centrist" position, suggesting restricted use of this form of fight as "defensive weapon". In fact the future tendency of the Independents, which will constitute the USPD in 1917-, is growing up there, facing to the "radical" left-wing current symbolised by Rosa Luxemburg and Pannekoek.
The debate on the mass strikes was reopened in 1910 by Rosa Luxemburg, who published an article (39) which was refused by the daily newspaper Vorwärts and the Kautsky’s Neue Zeit, who considered that the question was already "overcome"; and that public polemics "allowed the adversary to know our own weak points" (40). In fact, after 5 years of delay, Kautsky took again the exactly same arguments that the Revisionists had formerly used against the Radical Left.
For Kautsky, it was clear that the mass strike in Russia was specific to this country, an economically "backward" country. The action of the Russian workers was the expression of "desperate conditions" that the Western proletariat was far away to living. Moreover, he affirmed, by manipulating the historical truth, "such decisive strikes never yet took place in Western Europe" (41). The conception of the revolutionary mass strikes should be "absolutely incompatible with the conditions of an industrialised country", enjoying "political rights" and better living standards. The economic crisis, whose "Radicals" stressed the importance in the sudden appearance of spontaneous class movements in Occident, was unfavourable to the revolution and the mass strikes; the proletariat needed only for claiming street demonstrations. The mass strikes in Occident should be more specific to fill with enthusiasm the workers in period of economic prosperity: "... in period of crisis, the proletariat does not show much fighting capacity and in period of prosperity much revolutionary dash. In period of crisis, it is easier to make huge street demonstrations than mass strikes. In times of prosperity, the worker can be filled with enthusiasm more for a mass strike that in times of crisis. " (42).
Kautsky conceded that there can be "local decisive strikes", but never generalised strikes. Mass strike in Occident is purely defensive and would be exerted as "means of coercion" against the government. The only possible strategy was an "erosion strategy" against the power, "nibbling" the positions of the bourgeois ones, and not "a strategy of destruction" of capitalism. To justify his argumentation, Kautsky referred not to the history of the period of mass strikes before and after 1905, but to the Ancient history... that of Hannibal, in fight against Rome. Drove to the wall by Rosa Luxemburg and Pannekoek, Kautsky used the same arguments that he had denounced at his old Revisionist adversaries:
• the parliamentary tactics are preferable to the revolutionary mass action and even to the political strikes: "an electoral victory produces an impression much stronger"; (43)
• the mass actions are street actions of an "unconscious crowd". Taking as starting point the Crowds’ psychology of the reactionary French sociologist Gustave Le Bon, Kautsky affirmed as follows: "The mass actions can be as well reactionary, even straight forwardly absurd";
• finally, any action of an unorganised mass, not controlled by Social Democracy and trade unions, threatened the quiet existence of the Workers’ revolutionary movement: "The unforeseeable character of the unorganised mass actions was often fatal for opposition movements and parties, in particular the revolutionary ones. " (44).
In response to Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg included all her former argumentation, exposed in Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions, by accentuating it. She showed the need for the proletariat for "marching resolutely to offensive"; decision could spout only out the masses themselves. The arguments of Kautsky were actually smoke screens "to slow down " the movement (45), as she underlined it in an article which was a whole program: "Erosion strategy or fight?".
In the article "Theory and practice" (46), she underlined three fundamental points concerning the debate on the mass strike:
• by its gigantic proletarian concentration in Petrograd and Moscow, Russia announced the revolution in Europe. Russia far from being backward from the strict point of view of capitalist growth showed a "high level of capitalist development ";
• the mass strikes did not disorganise and did not weaken anymore the Workers’ movement. On the contrary, it was "profitable". The Russian mass strikes had allowed "more conquests on the economic, social and political plan that the German trade-unionist movement during its four decades of existence ";
• the strikes in Occident came again in force; the danger, which threatened those, was the capacity of Social Democracy " indeed to paralyse the most perfect mass action by adopting an oscillating tactic and without energy ". And in optimistic way, Rosa Luxemburg concluded that it was not a question of carrying out the fight against the party and trade unions leadership; the masses themselves would take care "to draw aside its leaders who go against the current of the tumultuous movement ".
Often in this debate, Rosa Luxemburg remained on the terrain chosen by Kautsky and the leadership of the SPD. Se invited to inaugurate demonstrations and strikes for the universal suffrage by mass strikes and proposed as transitory watchword that, more "mobilising", of "fight for the Republic". On this side, Kautsky could retort to her that "to want to inaugurate electoral fight by mass strike, is nonsense". Moreover, taking the thrown ball, Kautsky affirmed that, basically, the contents of Social Democracy were other than abstract "socialism ": "Social Democracy will continue to mean by itself Republic." (47).
Very different was the terrain chosen by Pannekoek, who, between 1910 and 1912, launched out, with the Left of Bremen and the Dutch Tribunists, a fundamental debate against Kautsky. Since 1909, the relationship of the Tribunists with this last had notably worsened, initially because of the scission of March 1909, then especially because of the publication of the Pannekoek’s book on the Tactical Divergences in the Workers’ movement. This book, in addition to its general theoretical framework, trained on Revisionism, was one of the first stages of the break-up of the Marxist Left with parliamentarism and trade unionism inside the IId International.
3. State and left: two obstacles
New tactics of mass action. – The question of the State
Prudently, in preliminary, Pannekoek stressed that parliamentarism had played a considerable role in the history of the proletariat: "Parliamentarism has [...] metamorphosed the proletariat, born of the enormous development of capitalism, in a conscious and organised class, fit to fighting." (48) Quickly, he stressed that it could not be used as instrument of domination of the proletariat; it was rather "the form of normal political domination of the bourgeois". And he warned against the electoralist manoeuvres ("Nur-Parlamentarismus", i.e. "Nothing-that-Parliamentarism") developed inside the Social democracy. In that, the position of Pannekoek and the Tribunists were in the right path of Marx and Engels, who denounced "the parliamentary cretinism". On this point, Rosa Luxemburg and the Dutch and German Left had a concordant view.
On the trade unions’ question, the position of the Dutchmen was much more radical than that of Rosa Luxemburg. While recommending, like her, the submission of the trade unions to the party and revolutionary program, and the fusion of the political and trade-union struggle "in a unified fight against the ruling class", Pannekoek judged impossible of carrying out any revolutionary fight in the trade unions framework. Structurally, the trade unions move not on the class struggle terrain but that of the bourgeois State, and consequently could not be revolutionary struggle organs: "... trade union is by no means an adversary of capitalism, but is located on the same terrain... trade unions are not the direct organ of the revolutionary class struggle; they don’t aim at overthrowing capitalism. Far away, they constitute a necessary element for the stability of a normal capitalist society." This analysis, extremely contradictory besides, announced the rejection of the trade union structure as tool of the fight, and even of any revolutionary trade-union "structure". Defined as "Syndicalist " by Kautsky (49), the Left of Pannekoek contained in germ the antisyndicalism by principle of the Communist Left after 1920.
The criticism of Pannekoek against Kautsky, fully matured in 1912 in his texts Mass Action and Revolution and Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactics (50), revealed a political and theoretical vision deeper than that of Rosa Luxemburg, who, in this debate, did not come out of the terrain chosen by Kautsky.
First of all, Pannekoek showed the convergence of the former radicalism of Kautsky with the Revisionism; "the passive radicalism " of the Kautskyist Centre had a quite precise aim, to diverting the revolutionary fight on the parliamentary and trade-union terrain: "This passive radicalism converges with the Revisionism in the sense that it leads to the exhaustion of our conscious activity in the parliamentary and trade-union fight." From a theoretical point of view, the Kautskyism was a not-will of action and somewhat fatalist, converging with the apocalyptic and catastrophist vision of the revolution of the Anarchists, waiting for the "miracle" of the "Great evening": "(passive radicalism) envisages revolutionary explosions which are presented in the form of cataclysms suddenly appearing, like out another world, independently of our will and our action, and which rise to give the coup de grâce to capitalism." (51)
The major points of the revolutionary criticism of Kautskyism by the Dutch Left, were the following:
• the Capital, at the epoch of imperialism an, with its great capitalist coalitions, cannot grant durable reforms any more to the proletariat, which is condemned to defensive actions against the deterioration of its living conditions. Mass strike is the typical form of the class struggle at the time of imperialism and it becomes impossible to fight for reforms: "…The class struggle grows in acuity and tends towards spreading. The driving force of the fight is not any hope to improve its situation, it is, in an increasing way, the sad need for facing the deterioration of its living conditions. The mass actions are a natural consequence of the transformation of modern capitalism into imperialism; they are unceasingly more the fight form which seems essential to confront it."
• sometimes the mass action seems "a corrective measure to the parliamentary action", sometimes " a politically extra-parliamentary activity of the organised working class ". (52) It is especially a spontaneous active and conscious action, gathering the majority of the workers, and thus endowed with its own organisation and discipline. Without giving precise name to this organisation, Pannekoek underlined a major fact: the capacity of self-organisation of the proletariat, fighting massively by extra-parliamentary means: "the (mass) was passive, it becomes an active mass, an organisation with its own life, cemented and structured by itself, equipped with its own consciousness and its own bodies. "
• in the mass action, the role of the party is decisive; it is an active factor, catalysing the revolutionary action which it leads and organises, "because it is carrying a great part of the capacity of action of the masses". But this role of leadership is more spiritual than material; the role of the party is not to control the proletariat, as a military staff does it: "(the party) is not carrying all the will of the proletariat as a whole. It cannot thus order it to march, as if one gave orders to soldiers. " (53).
• The violent confrontation of the proletariat with the State, carrying all the means of repression, cannot stop the proletariat; the ruling class can destroy the form of proletarian organisation, not its "spirit ", which remains in the working masses educated in the organisation, discipline and cohesion spirit. Also, "(the State) can destroy only the external envelope of the proletarian organisation, not its soul". That is confirmed fully in the revolutionary action where the organisation is growing stronger, and, in the fire of the experience, becomes "solid like steel ".
• finally, Pannekoek will affirm that the political party cannot rise as mass organisation, but as a solid and compact nucleus which cannot substitute for the will of the masses: "But "we" are not the masses; we are only a small group, a nucleus. It is not what we do want, but what the mass do, which determines the course of the events." (54). This conception will be largely developed by the Dutch-GermanCommunist Left in the years 1920, particularly by the KAPD.
Nevertheless, the essential contribution of Pannekoek in the debate on mass strike surpasses his analysis of the role of the party, conception largely shared by Rosa Luxemburg. It takes place in defining the finality of the revolution. If each great mass strike, as Pannekoek noted it in 1912, "now took aspect of explosion, a revolution into small " (55), it is because it fell under a long-term process, of confrontation and finally of destruction of the capitalist State: "The fight (of the proletariat) ceases only with the complete destruction of the State machinery."
This new conception of relationship between proletariat and State was to the antipodes of that shared by the official Social Democracy and Kautsky. For this last, there was no change in the tactics of Social Democracy, in spite of the Russian Revolution. It was a simple question of seizing the State power, such as it existed, by the means of a parliamentary majority, and not the point to destroying the State power and its machinery: "...the goal of our political fight remains the same as it was before: to seize the State power as a conqueror the majority at the Parliament and to ensure the pre-eminence of the Parliament on the government. But the destruction of the State power never... Never this process cannot lead to the destruction of the State power, but always on a displacement of the balance of forces inside the State power". "The conquest" of the State, according to Kautsky, was thus a gradual, peaceful process, by the parliamentary way, "nibbling" inside the State apparatus.
Seven years before Lenin does begin again in 1917 this debate on this question in The State and the Revolution –while using very largely and with delay the Pannekoek’s pamphlet (56)– Pannekoek in its booklet The power means of the proletariat (57), 1910, approached with surprising clearness the problem: "The fight of the proletariat is not only a fight against the capitalist class for the State power, but a fight against the State power." (58) If, according to Lenin, the booklet of Pannekoek, missed "clearness and precision", it contained in germ the idea, already developed by Marx and Engels, and constantly taken up after 1917 by the Marxist Left, that the proletariat could not be satisfied to just conquer the old State power, it had to demolish all the machinery (police force, army, justice, administration) to replace it by a new State apparatus.
Of which nature would be this new State power; how would rise the "dictatorship of the proletariat" which should be built on the ruins of the bourgeois State power: On these questions Pannekoek and the Dutch Left remained vague, through lack of significant historical experience. The answer was however not –what claimed Kautsky (59) – that of the anarchism: destruction of any State power, without any conquest of political power. In a booklet published in 1906 (Upheavals in the future State), Pannekoek affirmed that the necessary conquest of the political power by the proletariat was "a long-term process, which can perhaps spread over decades with ups and downs". Approaching the Transition period from capitalism to socialism, he strongly also affirmed that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" could be confused neither with nationalisation nor with "socialisation" nor with any form of "State capitalism". (60)
In fact for Pannekoek, the Transition period depended on the realisation of three conditions:
• "political domination of the working class" on class society and economy;
• "workers’ democracy";
• "raising and improvement of the daily living of the labouring popular mass", by "a powerful rise in the productivity of work", and "the rise of the cultural level". Socialism was less one "violent suppression of the private property" and an upheaval of the legal relations of property that initially and before a whole "suppression of poverty and misery" .
The State in the Transition period, such as it was considered before 1914 by the Dutch "radicals", could remain perfectly with a communal Parliament and councils. It would be at the same time a government, an administration, a Parliament, but especially based on "committees for all kinds of object". Without using the term, this State would be reduced to be only one half-State whose tasks would be primarily economic, and from which the political domination would tend to disappear: "The State will be a body with economic functions, which does not need more to exert its own domination." The Dutch Left did not go further in its analysis of these complex problems. That of which it was sure, it is that socialism would mean the final exit of "the animal time of humanity".
Party, Councils and Revolution. "Masses or chiefs?"
The war and the Revolution of the councils in Russia, Germany and Hungary will modify and enrich the conception by the Dutch left. Basically the revolution in Russia exclusively raised the question of the real detention of the power by the Workers’ councils, and thus of antagonism between the party supposed to represent them (the party Bolshevik or any other party) and the latter. The total substitution of the power of the councils by the party dictatorship to the service of the State capitalism as of (and even front) March 1918 posed in a clear way the question of the role of the revolutionary parties in the councils. The German Left, represented by the KAPD and Unions (AAU and AAU-E) in Germany embodied in practice this radical tendency which put ahead the role of The Workers’ Councils as inalienable forms of proletarian power. The Unions represented the political-economic nucleus of the radical workers with the transformation of the economic fight organisations into political bodies of power: the Workers’ councils.
In the German and Dutch Communist left, there was, nevertheless, a great importance given to the role of the party, as well before during the revolution. Vis-à-vis Bolshevism, preaching the party dictatorship, on the place of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" exerted by the whole working class gathered in the Workers’ councils, the Dutch-German Left replied in 1920 with the writings of Gorter and Pannekoek, Reply to the comrade Lenin, and World Revolution and Communist tactics of Pannekoek.
A Communist Party acting in the councils' movement had another finality, very different from that assigned by the Bolshevik and social democrat parties. Taking up again the conception of Rosa Luxemburg, the Dutch theorists affirmed that the Communists "plan to prepare their own decline" (61) in the Communist society.
The Communist Party could be only a tool of the revolution, even if it played a decisive part in the crystallisation of the revolutionary mind and deed of the proletariat:
"The Party has the task to propagate in advance clear knowledge, so that appear within the masses, in those moments, elements able to know what it is advisable to do and to judge the situation by themselves. And, during the revolution, the party must establish the program, the watchwords and the directives that the masses, acting spontaneously, recognise right, because they find there, in an accomplished form, their own revolutionary object and arrive, thanks to them, to view there the things more clearly." (62)
The function of the party was thus not only to elaborate the program; its function was an active function of propaganda and agitation. Even if the working masses rose spontaneously, the party was not spontaneist; it could not accept blindly any spontaneous action of the workers. The party was not dissolved in the mass but a lucid and bold avant-garde by its watchwords and its directives. In this acceptation only, the party directed and "led the struggle ". This role of "leadership" was not that of a staff, ordering the working class like an army, conception theorised as much by Bolshevism as by social democracy. The revolution was not decreed; but was "spontaneously" "the work of the masses themselves". If certain actions of the party could be a starting point of the revolution –"that does not arrive but rarely"– the decisive factor was self-development of the class consciousness, which emerged in the form of spontaneous actions. "The psychic factors deeply hidden in the unconsciousness of the masses" gave an apparent spontaneity to the revolutionary activity. The function of the party was precisely "always to act and speak so as to awake and strengthen the class-consciousness of the workers ". (Underlined by Gorter.) (63)
This function of the party determined the structure and the operating mode of the Communist organisation. Instead of gathering enormous masses, at the risk of sweetening the principles and even of opportunist gangrene, the party had to remain "a nucleus as resistant as steel, as pure as the crystal". This idea of a nucleus party implied a rigorous selection of the militants. But the Dutch-German Left did not preach the virtues of insulation and minority:
"If... we have the duty to still remain for a time in a small minority, it is not because we appreciate this situation with an particular predilection, but because we must endure it before becoming stronger."
In a rather awkward way, Gorter –at the price of paradoxical argumentation– felt into a vain polemics against the Executive of the Comintern, which judged the Communist Left like "sects":
"A sect, then? will say the executive Committee... Perfectly, a sect, if you understand by that term the initial nucleus of a movement which claims the conquest of the world."
Following the KAPD, Gorter opposed "the chiefs’ party "and "the party of the masses", ‘dialectics’ that Pannekoek besides refused to adopt. It is clear that all the Communist Left had been shocked by the scission in October 1919, in Heidelberg, where the minority, manoeuvring with a non representative leadership of the KPD, exerted its dictatorship on the party, and expelled at last the majority of the party. This self-designated leading, so Levi, Brandler and Clara Zetkin, was opposed to the will and the political orientation of the working masses in the party. By "Party of the chiefs" the Left mean the party which nourishes not the internal democracy in the party, but the clique dictatorship, from top to bottom, while adopting the conception of Lenin: "an iron party" and "an iron discipline". "The party of the masses"–and not the mass party, on the contrary, must be built "upwards" by the revolutionary workers of the party.
Gorter, Pannekoek and the KAPD did not deny the need for a united work in the party, necessarily centralised and disciplined. Gorter, who is often and wrongfully presented, like Don Quichote, as the hero of "the fight against the chiefs", wanted in fact true chiefs, true centralisation and true discipline in the party:
"... we are still searching true chiefs who do not seek to dominate the masses and do not betray them, and as a long time as we will not have them, we want that all will be done upwards, and by the dictatorship of the masses themselves... That is also worth with regard to the iron discipline and the strong centralism. We want it well but only after having found true chiefs, not before."
In fact, in an intuitive way, Gorter developed an idea which will be that one of the whole international Communist Left, Italian included, after the Second World War. In the revolutionary parties, rose no more, as in the IId and IIId Internationals, ‘great men’ having a crushing weight at the point to dominate the entire organisation. A revolutionary organisation became more impersonal and more collective. Gorter noticed this fact in 1920, in a country as developed as Germany:
"Didn’t you notice that, comrade Lenin, there are not ‘great’ chiefs in Germany? All are very ordinary men."
The existence of "great men" in the movement and the personalisation of this last (Leninism, Trotskyism, "Luxemburgism", "Bordigism") were in fact a sign of weakness and not of force. It characteristised economically underdeveloped countries –where the consciousness and the maturity of the proletariat remain in an embryonic state, from which the need for "charismatic chiefs" to balance this weakness. In the great capitalist countries, the historical traditions of struggle give class-consciousness much more worked out and structured. The importance of the "chiefs" is indirectly proportional to the real consciousness of the working masses.
New tactics of the proletariat
The triumph of the Workers’ Councils on a world scale required a complete inversion of the former praxis of the proletariat, Social Democracy and Bolshevism included.
For the Dutch Left, the tactics of the Comintern in Occident were too "Russian" and thus inapplicable. The tactics of Lenin "could only lead the Western proletariat to its loss and terrible defeats". Contrary to the Russian revolution, which had been built on the revolt of the poor peasants, the revolution in Occident would be more purely proletarian. The proletariat in the advanced countries had not potential allies, neither the farmers nor the urban petty bourgeois. It could count only on its number, its consciousness and its own organisation. The proletariat was alone facing all the other classes:
"The workers in Western Europe are completely alone. ...in addition, it is only a very thin layer of poor petty bourgeois who will help them. And this one is economically unimportant. The workers will have to carry all the weight of the Revolution. Here is the great difference with Russia." (64)
What was evident on the social terrain was still truer on the political level. The political forces, which represented the various tendencies and the various interests of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois strata, were not divided any more but united against the proletariat. At the era of imperialism, "the differences between Clericals and Liberals, Conservators and Progressists, upper class and petty bourgeoisie are disappearing". That was confirmed by the imperialist war, and even more by the process of the revolution. To the proletariat united in the revolution faced the union of all the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces:
"United against the revolution and so, in fact, against all the workers, because only the revolution can really improve the situation of all the workers. Against the revolution all the parties agree without dividing themselves."
Consequently, the Communist Left rejected any ‘tactical’ possibility of forming a United Front with these parties, even "leftist"; it rejected the idea of "Workers’ governments" recommended by the KPD (S) and Lenin.
The new historical period, that of the wars and the revolutions, erased the "differences" and "disagreements" between bourgeois and social democrat parties:
"Undoubtedly one must say that these differences between social-democrats and bourgeois were reduced to almost nothing during the war and the revolution and that they usually disappeared."
Any "Workers’ government" –as underlines it Pannekoek– is essentially counter-revolutionary. "Seeking by all the means to prevent that the breach should not undermine the flank of the capitalism and that the Workers’ power should not develop, it behaves like an active counter-revolutionary agent." The role of the proletariat is not only to fight it, but also to reverse it to settle a true "Communist government".
That analysis of the Left on the nature of the social-democrat parties is still marked by some hesitations. Sometimes Social Democracy seems like the left wing of the bourgeoisie, sometimes like a "Labor party". The tactics of the Dutch Left appear at Gorter not very clear: no support for the social democracy, right- and left-wings included, in the elections, but call to common action: "for the strike, for the boycott, for insurrection, the street battles and especially for the Workers’ councils, for the factory organisations". Also a United Front "by the grass roots" and "in the action" could be established with these organisations.
The historical change of period deeply modified the tactics of the West European proletariat. This one was simplified while tending directly towards the revolutionary taking of power. That does not mean that the proletarian revolution will be easier in Occident than in an underdeveloped country, like Russia. On the contrary it will be more difficult: facing a "powerful capitalism", "the efforts required of the masses by the situation are still much significant than in Russia". These objective factors (economic force of the capital, union of all the classes against the proletariat) weigh little, however, vis-à-vis the delay of the subjective conditions of the revolution. The Dutch Left underlined the enormous weight of the democratic illusion in the proletariat. The democratic "heritage" is the principal factor of inertia within the proletariat. It is the principal difference with the Russian revolution. Pannekoek expressed it in these terms:
"In these countries, the bourgeois mode of production, and the high culture which is linked to it since centuries, impregnated in-depth the manner of feeling and of thinking of the popular masses."
The proletarian way of thinking is distorted by this "culture" whose most typical expressions are individualism, the feeling of adhering to a "national community ", the veneration of abstract formulas like ‘democracy’. The power of out-of-date positions of the social democracy, the blind belief – revealing a lack of confidence into itself – of the proletariat in "chiefs who, for tens years, had personified the struggle, the revolutionary aim", and finally the material and moral weight of the old forms of organisation, "gigantic machines created by the masses themselves": as many negative factors which consolidate "the bourgeois tradition".
It follows that the fundamental question in the developed countries of Western Europe is the rupture with the bourgeois ideology, disguised in "eternal spiritual tradition". This one while being presented as "culture" is "a factor of infection and paralysis" of the masses action. Contradiction between the immaturity of the proletariat, too accustomed to think in terms of ideology and the maturity of the objective conditions (collapse of capitalism) "can be solved only by the process itself of the revolutionary development", by "the direct experience of the struggle".
The tactics followed by the proletariat during the revolutionary period must necessarily adapt "at the stage of evolution reached by capitalism". The fight’s methods and forms change, depending on "each phase" of the capitalist evolution. The proletariat must thus "overcome the tradition of the preceding phases", in the first place the trade unionist and parliamentary tradition.
The trade-union’s question. – Revolutionary trade unionism or united organisations of the proletariat?
Contrary to the Anarchists, Gorter and Pannekoek did not reject for each period and on principle the parliamentary and trade union tactics. Since 1914, they are not any more "the weapons of the revolution" (Gorter). Parliaments and trade unions express from now on "the power of the chiefs" on "the masses". Terminology somewhat ‘idealist’, retracting the fundamental question: is it the internal working –the ‘chiefs’– or the structure even of the trade unions which became unsuitable for the revolutionary fight?
In The infantile Disease of Communism, Lenin affirmed that it was necessary by all the means, even the least avowal ones, to penetrate in force in the trade unions to conquer them. He put them on the same plan as the Zubatovist movement (65) in 1905, to which adhered the Russian workers:
"It is even necessary... to use –if needs be– for all the stratagems, all the expedients, to resort to tricks, to dissimulate, conceal the truth, for the sole aim to penetrate in the trade unions, to remain there and to carry out whatever the cost the Communist action." (66)
The reply of the Dutch Left was neither moral nor moralising, although it rejected any policy of subterfuges and lies, but historical. The situation in 1920 is not any more that of 1905. The trade unions in Germany, the most representative country in Western Europe, passed on the side of the bourgeois and do not have any more a workers’ nature, but their blood on the hands. Not only the ‘bad’ chiefs, but also the ‘grass roots’ took part in the repression of the revolution (67):
"The trade unions are employed by the chiefs and the mass of the members as weapons against the revolution. It is by their assistance, their support, the action of their chiefs and partly also by that of their members that the Revolution has been assassinated. The Communists see their own brothers shot with the assistance of the trade unions. The strikes in favour of the revolution are broken. Do you believe, comrade, that it is possible that revolutionary workers remain then in such organisations?"
During the revolutionary epoch, there are not any more ‘apolitical’ or ‘neutral’ trade unions, which would be satisfied with economic actions in favour of their members. "Each trade union, even each workers’ grouping, plays a political role of party for or against the revolution." Contrary to the "Bordigist" Italian Left which recommended a "trade-unions’ United Front", by rejecting any kind of "political United Front", the Dutch Left refused any form of "Frontism".
The trade unions, in the beginning "natural organisations for the unification of the proletariat", had been transformed gradually into anti-workers organisations. Their bureaucratisation, where the apparatus of the official representatives rule over the workers, is equal to a quasi-fusion with the State. The trade unions behave like the Capitalist State while breaking by their "law" (rules, statutes) and by the force any revolt against their ‘order’:
"The trade unions also resemble the State and its bureaucracy in this that, in spite of a democratic mode, the grass roots do not have any means of imposing their will to the leaders; a clever system of rules and statutes choke indeed the least revolt before it can threaten the higher realms."
As well as the Capitalist State, the trade unions have not to be conquered but destroyed. Any idea to re-conquer the trade unions and to transform them into Communist bodies cannot be but the worst Reformist illusion – Gorter compares on several occasions Lenin with Bernstein. To develop an opposition in the trade unions –according to the tactics of Lenin– which were Communist is nonsense, because "the bureaucracy can perfectly manoeuvre to suppress an opposition before this last one really does threaten it". On the absurd assumption that the opposition would seize the leading apparatus by driving out the ‘bad’ chiefs, itself would act exactly like the latter:
"Replace, in the old trade unions, the former bureaucracy by new blood and, in little time, you will see that this one also will acquire the same character which will promote it, will move away it, will detach it from the masses. 99 per 100 of them will become tyrants, at the side of the bourgeois." (68)
It is thus not the contents of the trade-union organisation which is bad (‘bad’ chiefs and "workers’ aristocracy" in the conception of Lenin), but the form of organisation, which "reduces the masses to the impotence. Revolution is thus not a question of injection of a new revolutionary contents in the old forms of organisation of the proletariat. There does not exist, in the conception of the Communist Left, a form alien from its revolutionary contents. The form is not indifferent (69). In this sense, the revolution is also a question of form of organisation, as well as it is a question of the development of the class-consciousness, its contents itself.
This form takes shape only in the Workers’ Councils rising in a revolutionary period, or more exactly in the factory organisations. Those overcome the exclusiveness of the old guild and craft unions and appear as the only form of unification of the working class. Their representatives (Obleute), contrary to the trade unions, are revocable constantly. The Dutch Left, on this point, follows the Russian example, where the Factory Councils and not the trade unions carried out the revolution. However, certain assertions of the Dutch Left let float certain ambiguities and show a lack of coherence:
• while preaching the destruction of the trade unions, it affirmed that the councils would provide "the bases of new trade unions";
• it confuses the German Unionen (Allgemeine Arbeiter-Unionen) with the Factory Councils, growing within the Workers’ councils. The Unionen were besides organisations of political nature, recognising the need for the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat exercised by the Workers’ councils.
• it remained "workerist" and preached a form of "factorism" where the factory was in the centre of all the social life: "the revolution in Occident cannot be organised but on the basis of the factories and in the factories"; the formation of territorial organisations shattering the framework of the factory has not been approached.
On these questions, the Dutch Left did not go to the roots of the trade-union problem, and thus of that of the formation of the Workers’ councils. Was it true that the "decline of the capitalism" –proclaimed by the Comintern– would make impossible long-lasting reforms? Were those –obtained in the XIXth century by the Reformists–, still possible since the war? Purely economic and claiming workers’ organisations could desert their class objectives, under the pressure of the State, and be brought to class collaboration. Or, in the best case, they would disappear, as for the Unionen. Was it at last possible to settle permanent claiming organisations? Much later the Dutch-German Left rejected any possibility of a permanent claiming organisation.
4. POLITICAL ECONOMY OR ECONOMIC POLICY OF THE REVOLUTION?
While rejecting as negative the political lessons of the Russian and German Revolution, by finally rejecting the need for a political organisation –by obsession of substitutionism–, the Dutch Councils’ Communists saw in the future revolution at first an economic question. The councils seemed to be more economic organisations of factory management than bodies of decision and control on the economic policy.
Ways of the proletarian revolution: from the struggle committees to the Workers’ Councils
The proletarian revolution would be established by the rise of the Workers’ councils, gathering the whole proletariat. But it was about the ultimate stage of a long and contradictory process needing for the bursting of economic strikes. Those were necessarily "wild strikes" against unions. This position has been always developed and repeated since its birth by the GIC, hardly deviated from that of the Italian Communist Left in the Thirties (70). Like the latter, but in a way much bolder, the GIC gave an great importance to the generalisation of the economic struggles in the form of mass strikes. But, unlike the Italian and Belgian ‘Bordigists’, it insisted particularly on the self-organisation of the wild strikes. This self-organisation necessarily required formation of elected "struggle committees" (strijdcomites), revocable by the whole fighting workers (71). Those, the following the German example during and after the First World War, elected directly "responsible representatives" within the strikers’ general meetings. All the workers, whatever their political and trade-union affiliation, could take part of these "struggle committees", in order to carry out a true "class unity". Such committees, unless betraying their unification function while transforming themselves into new trade unions, were non-permanent organs: they emerged and disappeared with the fight itself. It is only in revolutionary period, that could be born and develop true permanent organisations, units gathering all the proletariat: the Workers’ councils. These councils, however, in spite of their spontaneous formation, did not emerge from anything, by spontaneous generation. "The precursors" of the "unificated" self-organisation, preparing "the class organisation", were born inevitably before the outbreak of the mass struggles. These organisations to some extent ‘embryos’ of the councils were not other than "nuclei of propaganda", made up of fighting workers organising and making agitation for the next massive fights. But in no case, such "nuclei of propaganda" could self-proclaim unity-organisation (Einheits-Organisation): "...the propaganda nucleus is not by itself the class organisation" (72).
Such nuclei of propaganda, obviously, formed "workers’ groups" without true policy guideline, but defending an opinion in the class struggle. But, in practice, the GIC seemed to confuse "groups of opinion", which constituted the "work groups" in the theory of the Dutchmen, with these workers’ groups. It followed thus a disconcerting confusion between organisations of workers and revolutionary organisations.
To overpass this contradiction, the GIC denied to the "groups of opinion" as to the "nuclei of propaganda" a political role in the workers’ economic fights. For Pannekoek, it was useless that these groups carry out a political struggle to direct the strikes and the demonstrations of workers, against the other groups or parties, even if those acted of the interior, in the factory, against the workers’ self-organisation. For him, it was a question of avoiding breaking "the unity of class" by useless political confrontations:
"Council Communism regards all the workers as a unity of class, beyond the organisations’ demarcations. It does not enter in competition with these organisations... Council Communism does not say to the workers members of parties and organisations: leave them and come to me." (73)
This vision, where the Council Communist organisation was rigorously separated from the fight of the workers, had practical consequences. For example, in the fight of the unemployed in the Netherlands, where the GIC intervened, this one gave as watchword, when committees of unemployed (Struggle Committees) were formed: "apart from all trade unions and all political party". (74)
For the Dutch "Councilism", it would be the same in a revolutionary period. The Workers’ Councils would be formed by dismissing any action of the revolutionary parties within, in order to be able to carry out their economic tasks of transformation of the society. There would be a radical separation between the revolutionary groups "forming an independent organisation of revolutionary workers in freely working work groups" (Canne-Meijer, op. cit.) and the "independent (organisation) of the workers’ masses in the Workers’ Councils"(idem). (75) The action of the revolutionary groups would be limited to support the economic tasks of the workers’ councils.
The transformation of the economy, from Capitalism to Communism. The Grundprinzipien (Basic Principles of Communist Production and Distribution)
The question of the Transition period –after the seizure of power by the Workers’ Councils– towards Communism was always tackled by the German then Dutch Council Communists, under a strictly economic angle. The immediate degeneration of the Russian Revolution after October 17 and the evolution of "Soviet" Russia towards State capitalism showed, according to GIC’S, meant the bankruptcy of the "politics". The economic factor, the management of the new society by the councils, had been too much minimised. The tradition of "politics", where "dictatorship of the proletariat" was conceived like a political dictatorship on the whole of the society, had relegated to the second plan the crucial economic tasks of the proletariat. This idea was expressed with a particular clearness by Pannekoek himself:
" Tradition means domination of the economy by the policy... what the workers have to realise is the domination of the policy by the economy." (76)
This vision was exactly the reverse of that of revolutionary groups of the Thirties, such Italian Communist Left, which had opened theoretical discussion over the Transition period (77).
One will not find at the GIC –contrary to the Italian and German Left-wing Communists (78)–, theoretical reflections on the question of the State during the Transition period. The relationship between the new State of the Transition period, revolutionary parties, and the Workers’ Councils are never approached, in spite of the Russian experience. One will find, nothing, either, on the relationship between an International revolutionary and the State –or the States– in the countries where the proletariat would have seized the political power. Lastly, the complex questions of "proletarian violence" (79) and civil war in revolutionary period are never put. For the GIC, it seems that there is no problem of the existence of a State –or half-State– during one Transition period towards Communism. Its existence even, its characterisation ("Proletarian State" or "plague" which the proletariat inherits) is never posed. These problems are completely absent.
The principal text of the GIC over the Transition period, the Basic Principles of production and Communist distribution, tackles only the economic problems of this period.
The starting point of the GIC is that the failure of the Russian Revolution and the evolution towards State capitalism could be explained only by ignorance if not by negation of the need for transforming the new society economically. This misinterpretation was common sense in the whole of the Workers’ movement. But, in a paradoxical way, the GIC recognised the fundamental role of the Russian experience, allowing to make progress in the Marxist theory:
"With regard to industry Russia tried to build an economic structure according to Communist principles’... and that completely failed... It is at the school of the practice of the Russian Revolution that we are indebted to be able to progress, for enabling us to note what did mean the right to have an apparatus of production, when it is in the hands of a central leadership." (80)
For the Dutch Council Communists, "dictatorship of the proletariat" will result immediately in "the association of free and equal producers". The workers, organised in councils in the factories, had to seize whole the apparatus of production and to make it function for their own needs, as consumers, and without refering to a central authority, of official type, whose finality is the perpetuation of the inequality in the society. One would avoid thus that the "State Communism", set up during the time of War Communism, from 1918 to 1920, inevitably would transform itself into State capitalism for which the needs for production take precedence over those of the Workers’ producers-consumers. In the new society, dominated by the power of the councils and not by the State of a centralised party, wage earning –source of any inequality and any exploitation of the labour force– will be abolished.
Finally, for the GIC, the problems of the Transition period were very simple: the producers had to control and distribute the social product, in an egalitarian way for each of them and by an authority exerted "upwards". The process of the Transition period, since 1917, was not purely political, in the form of extension of the proletarian revolution to whole the world, but economic, by the way of an increase of the Workers’ consumption, immediately and equally organised by the Factory Councils. The only true problem of the Transition period would be, according to the GIC, the relationship between the producers and their products:
"The proletariat underlines the fundamental character of the relation of the producer to his product. It is that and only that which is the central problem of the proletarian revolution."
But how to arrive at a egalitarian "distribution" of the social product? This one, obviously, could not rise from simple measures of juridical nature: nationalisation, "socialisation", any forms of nationalisation of the private property. The solution, according to GIC’S, was in the calculation of the production costs of the factories in terms of labour-time comparing it to the quantity of the social goods created. Of course, according to the respective productivity of the factories, for the same product the quantities of work necessary to its manufacture were unequal. It was thus enough, to solve this problem, to calculate the average social time of production of each product. The quantity of work of the most productive factories, exceeding the social average, would be versed at a Common Funds; this one would take care to lift the "level" of the least productive factories. It would be simultaneously used to introduce technological progress necessary for developing the productivity of the factories of a given branch, in order to decrease the average time of production.
The organisation of consumption depended on the same principle of accountancy. The general social accounting, thanks to the statistical documentation, established by the producers-consumers organised as councils and co-operatives, calculates the factors of consumption. After deducting –replacement of the obsolete apparatus of production, technical improvements, Social funds of safety for the work unfit, the natural catastrophes, etc.– there would be an equal distribution of the social reserves of consumption for each consumer. To the equal conditions of production, ensured by the calculation of the average social labour-time, would correspond generally equal conditions for all the individual consumers. Thanks to this system of social accounting, it would be put an end to the law of value: the products would circulate no more on the basis of their exchange-value by using universal monetary standard. In addition, with the construction of a ‘neutral’ counting and statistical centre, not detached from the councils, independent of any group of people or any authority of central nature, the new society would escape the danger from the formation of a parasitic bureaucracy, nibbling a part of the social product.
The Grundprinzipien by the Dutch Councils Communists had the merit to stress the importance of the economic problems during the Transition period from Capitalism to Communism, as they had been little discussed in the Marxist movement. Without a real and continuous increase of the working-class consumption, the "proletarian dictatorship" did not make any sense and the outlook of Communism would be a pious wish.
But the text of the GIC suffered from a certain number of weaknesses, which did not escape other revolutionary groups (81).
The Grundprinzipien approached in fact the advanced phase of Communism where the administration of the men yielded the place "to the administration of the things", according to the principle "everyone to his needs, everyone to his possibilities" (Marx). The GIC conceived immediately possible –the moment the Workers’ councils seize the power in any country– the construction of Communism in its most advanced form. It started from an ideal situation, where the victorious proletariat had seized the productive apparatus of highly developed countries, without having suffered the great ills of the civil war (destruction, part of the production devoted to military needs); where, in addition, no peasant problem stood in the way of socialisation of the production, since, according to the GIC, the agricultural production already had been completely industrialised and socialised (82). Finally, neither the insulation of one or several proletarian revolutions, nor the archaism of the small agricultural production constituted major obstacle to founding Communism: "Neither the absence of world revolution nor the maladjustment of the individual smallholding to state management can be held for responsible of the failure of (the Russian Revolution)..." in the economic field. (83)
Thus, the GIC moved away from the vision of Marx on the Transition period, who distinguished two phases: an inferior phase, that of the socialism, where "the administration of the men" determines a "proletarian" economic policy, in a society still dominated by the scarcity, a higher phase, that of Communism, where the classless society freed of the law of value would enjoy a free development of the productive forces at the world scale. But even in the lower phase of the Transition period, still dominated by the law of value and the existence of reactionary classes, the Marxism stressed that the condition of any economic socialist transformation lain in the triumph of the world revolution. The beginning of any real economic transformation of the new society, still divided into classes, necessitated in first place the political assurance of the proletariat vis-à-vis the other classes.
The theory of the GIC on the Transition period could appear quite close to the Anarchist theory, denying the existence of a State and thus of a political struggle for the domination of the new society. The technical role granted by the GIC to the workers, responsible for the accounting of the average social labour-time of the production, was an implicit negation of their political role.
As in the Anarchist theory, the GIC seemed to give an automatic and almost natural form to the construction of a Communist society. This one was not the result of a long-term contradictory process of class struggle for the domination of the "half-State", against the conservative social strata, but the product of a linear and harmonious, and quasi-mathematical development. The mathematical harmony of the accounting of the labour-time was a guarantee of the harmony of the Communist society. This vision was not so far of that of the utopians in the XIXth century, particularly that of the "universal harmony" of Fourier (85).
In the second place, the existence of a ‘neutral’ and so-called technical accounting centre did not offer sufficient guarantees for the edification of Communism. This ‘centre’ could at last only aim to the accumulation of the social working hours, while cutting down on the requirements in consumption and available time of the producers-consumers and also alienating itself more and from the society. "On the grass roots", if there came that the producers ignore more and more the control of this ‘centre’ and the social organisation in general, it could inevitably be a transfer of the functions filled by the leading "bodies" of the producers to some "technical authorities". The negation of these potential dangers by the GIC was not without consequence. The Dutch Internationalists could from there reject any possibility of fight, even under Communism, rising from the producers for the improvement of their labouring conditions. It seemed that the GIC refused to consider the possibility of a society where the fight for better working conditions would not cease, where "the distribution of the social product would remain an antagonistic distribution" and where finally the fight for equal distribution of the products could exist. Wasn’t this to reintroduce the idea that the producers-consumers could not fight against themselves, including their ‘accounting centre’?
In fact for the GIC, Communism seemed an absolute equality between all the producers. This one was carried out at the start of the Transition period (87). During the Communist period, there was not any more natural inequality (physical, psychic) in the production and consumption sphere. But a Communist society could be defined as the verification of a "real equality in natural inequality" (88).
Pannekoek and the economic transformation of the new society
Pannekoek, to whom Canne-Meijer had required a foreword to the book of Jan Appel, in 1930 (89), was very wary with the idea to write a book devoted to the economic transformations of the Transition period. Estimating himself "not too very familiar with these questions" it seemed to him at first "somewhat utopian and unreal" to draw up a diagram from an unreal "plan". Then, after having read The Grundprinzipien, it seemed to him that "that gained in being known" (90).
In fact, the position of Pannekoek on these questions was expressed, nearly 15 years afterwards in his book The Workers’ Councils (1946). It does not differ appreciably from the theoretical conclusions of the Grundprinzipien, but remains more moderate, more historical.
Like the Grundprinzipien, Pannekoek estimated justified the system of accounting of the working hours: "... in the new system of production, the fundamental data are the number of working hours, that it is expressed in monetary units, in the first times, or in real units." (91) Like the GIC, Pannekoek tends to reduce the economic problems of the Transition period to a technical and statistical question: "The general accounting, which relates to and includes the administrations of the various factories, will join together all them in an economic table of the process of the society... the social organisation of the production found on a good management by means of statistics and of countable data... the process of production is exposed clearly to all in the form of a simple and understandable digital image."
This managerial conception, determined by a statistical and non-social reality, involves an administrative organisation of the new society, a pure "administration of the things" in the form of accounting offices: "Once that the production was organised, the administration becomes a task, relatively simple, of the network of accounting offices, linked each other."
Like the GIC, Pannekoek takes into account only "the higher phase of Communism". The Workers’ councils, "the organisation of the real democracy", that of the workers, have a role of decision only on the level of the production, but at the political level they do not have any. The councils, because "the policy itself disappears", do not full-fill any governmental function of power. There is no "government of the councils", as that was the watchword during the revolutionary period (1917-1921):
"The councils are no government; not even the most central councils bear a governmental character. They have no way to impose their will upon the masses; they have no organs of power." The aspect "maintenance of law and order" and "class violence", typical of any state structure, could not be in the hands of a political central power, but of a decentralised social power: " All social power is vested in the hands of the workers themselves. Everywhere where the necessary exercise of power counters disorders or attacks against the existing order – it emanates from the workers’ communities in the workshops and remains under their control."
This assertion of "a social power" of workers’ communities shows that Pannekoek not tackled in the Workers’ Councils the question of the State and the social classes –still analysed by Marx and Engels–. It seems, in fact, that Pannekoek considered the existence of a "half-State" in the "higher phase" of Communism, still exerting a form of violence. If there existed still "Workers’ communities" and therefore classes –and not a classless society of producers–, isn’t this the admission that the State still would remain? Although this State power, called "social", is moved from councils to communities, to be decentralised, isn’t there to admit the existence of a political class power? Facing these questions, Pannekoek gave no precise response. It would seem rather than this last brought back the problems of a true Communist society, "without classes and State", to those of the Transition period itself, in the "lower phase" of Communism.
The Pannekoek’s Workers’ Councils implicitly criticise the Grundprinzipien on two essential points:
"At the beginning of the Transition period, whereas should be raised a ruined economy, the essential problem consists in installing the apparatus of production and to ensure the immediate existence of the population, It is very possible that under these conditions one continues to uniformly distribute the foodstuffs, like one always does it in times of war or of famine but it is more probable than in this phase of rebuilding, where all the available forces must get busy thoroughly and where, which more is, the new moral principles of common work take form only gradually, the right to consumption is linked to the realisation of any working task. The old popular diction " who does not work does not eat " expresses an instinctive feeling of justice. "
"... That does not mean that the totality of production will henceforth be distributed to the producers, in proportion to the number of working hours provided by each one, or in other words, that any worker will receive in the form of products the exact equivalent of time that he passed to work. Indeed, most of work must be devoted to the common property, must be used to improve and widen the apparatus of production... Moreover, it will be necessary to allocate part of the total labour-time to non-productive activities, but socially necessary: general administration, teaching, and health services..."
The analysis of Pannekoek, in the light of his short theoretical outlines, appears much more nourished by concrete historical experiences (Russian Revolution and War Communism) and less marked by any form of egalitarian "utopism". By the rejection of an "equal right" in the distribution of consumer goods, it appears closer to that of Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Program. This one showed, indeed, that an equal distribution based over the labour-time brought at the same time new inequalities, since the producers differed necessarily from each other by their personal working abilities and also their family state and their physical capacity.
However, like the Grundprinzipien, the Workers’ Councils remain locked up in technical and accounting problems . The point of view remains "economist" –the complex questions of the State and of the political domination of the transition society by the proletariat are never or very briefly tackeld. From an economic point of view, the decisive question whether the abundance of the consumer goods under Communism would make useless any calculation of the individual labour-time is purely ignored. In a way quite as simple, the questions of the perpetuation of the monetary forms and social productivity are straightforwardly isolated.
Is it due to the difficulty in designing a society based either on the scarcity but on abundance? Lastly, the relationship between Communism and nature, the crucial question of their balance for the perpetuation of the mankind; could not obviously be posed at that time.
5. The class struggle movement and the Workers’ Councils
The publication of The Workers’ Councils in January 1946 would contribuate to the clarification of the councils movement. Around the group Communistenbond Spartacus (Communist Union "Spartacus") had gathered militants coming from the group of Sneevliet (MLL Front) and the GIC as Canne-Meijer, Jan Appel and B.A. Sijes. The class struggle was conceived on their premises more like an economic movement that like a process of increasing organisation of the proletariat. Pannekoek who had criticised the vision expressed in the Grundprinzipien, gave important stakes of reflection to understand the political dimension of the Workers’ councils, that one could not reduce to organs of economic management. Even if the base of the class struggle were economic, this one were necessarily transformed into a political struggle of all the workers for the power.
The "self-management" of the class struggle
Pannekoek insisted strongly more on the need for a general class organisation that on the process of the struggle. He affirmed, indeed, that "the organisation is the vital principle of the working class, the condition of its emancipation ". (92). This clear assertion showed that the conception of Council Communism in this period was not that of anarchism. To the difference of this current, Pannekoek stressed that the class struggle is less "direct action" that awakening of the aim of the struggle, and that consciousness precedes action:
"The spiritual development is the most important factor in the seizing of power by the proletariat. The proletarian revolution is not the product of a brutal, physical force; it is a victory of the spirit... In the beginning was the deed. But the action is nothing more than the beginning... Any unconsciousness, any illusion on the nature, the aim, the force of the adversary results in misfortune and the defeat founds a new slavery." (93)
Only this consciousness process in the working class allowed the spontaneous outbreak of "wild strikes" (illegal or not official) in opposition to strikes "managed" by the trade unions in respecting rules, law and order". Spontaneity was not the negation of the organisation; on the contrary "the organisation is born spontaneously, immediately".
But neither the consciousness nor the organisation for the fight is an objective in itself. They express proletarian praxis where consciousness and organisation fall under a practical process of extension of the struggle, which leads to the unification of the proletariat:
"... the wild strike, such fire in the meadow, spreads over the other factories and includes masses, increasingly more important... the first task to be filled, the most important, it is to make propaganda to try to extend the strike. "
This idea of extending the wild strikes was nevertheless in contradiction with that of taking possession of the factories, an idea propagated by Pannekoek. Pannekoek, like the militants of the Spartacusbond, had been very marked by the phenomenon of occupation of the factories in the Thirties. Occupation of the factories had passed in the history under the name of "Polish strikes", since the Polish minors in 1931 had been the first to apply this tactic. This one had then extended in Romania and Hungary, then in Belgium in 1935, and finally in France in 1936.
At the time, the Italian Communist Left, around Bilan, while greeting these explosions of workers’ fight (94), had shown that these occupations led to imprisonment of the workers in the factories, what corresponded to a counter-revolutionary course toward the world war. In addition, a revolutionary course resulted primarily in a movement of extension of the fight culminating with the sudden appearance of the Workers’ councils. The appearance of the councils did not cause necessarily a stop of the production and the occupation of the factories. On the contrary, in the Russian Revolution, the factories continued to work, under the control of the Factory Councils; the movement was not an occupation of factories but the political and economic domination of the production by the councils in the form of daily general meetings. This is why, the transformation of the factories of the North of Italy into "fortresses" by the workers in 1920, who occupied the workshops, expressed a declining revolutionary course.
For the Italian Communist Left, it was necessary that the workers break the ties attaching them to their factory, to create a class unity exceeding the narrow framework of the place of work. On this question, Pannekoek and the Spartacusbond were attached to the "factorist" ideas of Gramsci in 1920. They regarded the struggle within the factory as an aim in itself, since the task of the workers was the management of the productive apparatus, as first stage before the conquest of the capacity:
"...in the occupations of factories takes place this future which depends on the clear consciousness that the factories belong to the workers, that together they form a harmonious unity and that the struggle for the freedom will be carried out until the end in and by the factories... here the workers become aware of their close ties with the factory... it is a productive apparatus which they make function, an organ which becomes an alive part of the society only by their work." (95)
Contrary to Pannekoek, the Spartacusbond tended to keep silent about the various phases of the class struggle, and to confuse immediate struggles (wild strikes) and revolutionary fights (mass strikes giving rise to the councils). Any strike committee –whatever the historical period and the phase of the class struggle– was compared to a Workers’ council:
"The strike committee includes delegates of various factories. It is called then "general strike committee"; but one can call it Workers’ council." (96)
On the contrary, Pannekoek underlined in the Five Theses on the class struggle (1946) that the wild strike became revolutionary only insofar as it turned into "a fight against the State power"; in this case "the strike committees must then fulfil general, political and social functions, i.e. the role of Workers’ councils". (97)
The self-management of the new political power
Faithful to Marxism, Pannekoek did not reject the use of violence as means of fight against the State nor the concept of "dictatorship of the proletariat". But those in no case were an aim by themselves; they were narrowly subordinated to the Communist objective: self-emancipation of the proletariat becoming conscious by its struggle. Its only principle of action was the Workers’ democracy. The revolution of the councils was not "a brutal and stupid force (which) can only destroy ". "The revolutions, on the contrary, are new constructions resulting from new forms of organisation and thought. The revolutions are constructive periods within the evolution of humanity." This is why "if armed action (played) also a great role in the class struggle", it was in the service of an objective: "not to break crania, but to open the brains". (98) In this direction, dictatorship of the proletariat was not other but freedom of the proletariat for the realisation of the true councils’ democracy:
"The conception of Marx of dictatorship of the proletariat appears identical to the workers’ democracy in the councils’ organisation."
Pannekoek took care to distinguish dictatorship of the proletariat from that of the State: "The councils are not a government; even the most centralised councils are not of governmental nature, because they do not have any means of imposing their own will on the masses; they do not have power organs. All the social power belongs to the workers themselves."
The Workers’ Councils thus seem an autonomous structure of self-regulation at the base, having no need for specialised organs. Moreover, Pannekoek sustained the possibility of exercising decentralised power, by the "polycentrism" of the proletarian power: "In this mutual dependence and this connection of the factories, in their links with other branches of the production, the councils, which discuss and decide, will cover fields of action increasingly wider, until the organisation, the consumption and the distribution of all the necessary goods, will require its own councils of representatives of all the interested parts and will be rather local or regional." (99)
Contradictions and silences of the Workers’ Councils
One will mention several inconsistencies in the book of Pannekoek.
There is initially the vision of an automatic growth of the fight and factory committees into Workers’ councils. These committees announce the councils by their revocability:
"During a wild strike the workers decide on all by themselves by the means of general meetings. They elect strike committees, whose members are revocable at any moment. If the movement is propagated in a great number of factories, the unity of action is carried out thanks widened committees, gathering the delegates of the whole factories in strike. These delegates do not decide apart from the rank and file, and do note impose their will to them. They are used quite simply as transmission agents, expressing the opinions and the desires of the group which they represent, and, conversely, convey to the general meetings, for discussion and decision, the opinion and the arguments of the other groups. Constantly revocable, they cannot play the role of leaders. The workers must choose themselves their way, decide by themselves of the course to give to the action; the capacity to decide and act, with its risks and its responsibilities, belongs to themselves. And when the strike ends, the committees disappear." (100)
If Pannekoek is right to insist on the evolutionary aspect of the process, he does not show in what exist a true historical jump where rise the revolutionary form of the councils, whereas the strike committees are yet only potentially revolutionary.
In the second place, at Pannekoek, a narrow conception of the Workers’ "democracy" in the councils evacuated the question of the Workers’ power vis-à-vis other classes and especially vis-à-vis the State. The councils seemed the reflection of various "opinions" at the workers. They are a species of Parliament with its Committees, where different work groups coexisted, but without power neither executive nor legislative:
"The delegates in the councils are... bound by their mandate: they have for single mission of delivering the opinion of the workers groups who chose to represent them. Being given that they are revocable constantly, the workers who have elected them preserve all the power."
The councils were thus not an instrument of the power of the proletariat, but an abstract assembly:
"The councils do not control; they transmit the opinions, the intentions, the will of the Work groups."
But, like very often, in The Workers’ Councils, an assertion is followed of its exact antithesis, so that it is difficult to release a coherent thought. As much in the quoted passage, the Workers’ Councils appears ineffective, as much further they are defined like a powerful organ "having to fill political tasks ", where "what is decided... is put into practice by the workers". What implies that the councils "write the new right, the new law".
In the third place, the councils seemed to be only organs of factory, or Factory Councils. In this manner, the territorial spreading and thus internationalisation of the councils seemed a secondary problem. For Pannekeoek, it seems that the form of the councils is not properly of territorial nature but a co-ordinated association of the different places of production:
"The representation by means of councils is not founded on the absurd regrouping of communes or districts; it depends on the natural regrouping of the workers in the process of production, the only real base of the social life." (idem).
"Only the proletarian interests are represented there, this form excluding the participation of capitalist delegates... The Workers’ Councils are the organs of the dictatorship of the proletariat."
Thus all comes from the factories to return to the factories, in the exercise of the political or economic power. The factories seemed as many "fortresses" in the realisation of the true association of the producers. One can wonder today about the validity of this vision, taking into account the decreasing weight of the factories in the economic and social life. From an economic standpoint, in a world of six billion human beings, too much centralisation kills any self-regulated economic initiative, any spontaneity of the producers (and consumers), to carry out socialism. Nowhere is posed the question whether the territorial base, decentralised for exercising the power would not be the best base of decision and action.
Lastly, nowhere it is not question of antagonism between the councils and the State rising from the revolution. Although the question had arisen in the Russian Revolution, Pannekoek implicitly seems to consider the councils like a species of State, of which the tasks will be increasingly economic, once that the workers will have become the " Masters of the factories". The councils cease being political organs and "are transformed... into organs of production". (100). Under this angle, it is difficult to see in what the councils’ theory of Pannekoek differs from the Bolsheviks one after 1918. Let us not forget that the transformation of the councils as of March 1918 into organs of production for the State was linked to the suppression of any democracy in the elections of the delegates. The councils were nothing any more but one empty shell or "a Potemkin’s village", a simple appendix of the State setting up State capitalism. The policy of War Communism achieved to transform the councils into organs of production in the service of the economic and military needs of the Russian State.
More than 50 years after the drafting of the Workers’ Councils, many concrete questions stand over, which are not solved:
– evolution of the society, where the place of the factory proletariat is not so strong as in the past.
– nonsense of a representation of the society built under the exclusive form of small islands of production, and not under the angle of the internationalisation.
– do the councils undertake all the economic tasks of the society, at the point to become a trust, an economic State?
– the Rühle’s question: centralism or anticentralism? do the economy be controlled by a system of "polycentrism", or by the means of decentralisation (example of Internet).
– if the society remains in the scarcity, in what the Workers’ Councils can be the organs of socialisation of a society founded on the nations, the national economy, social lobbies (corporations and guilds)?
– the revocation of the "delegates " within the councils: is it a guarantee against enemy parties. It is still to put the question of the relationship between the State, the so-called "proletarian" or "half-State" – supposed being in the service of all labouring people– and the Workers’ councils.
The question of the State is not really made clear. The crucial question of the driving of the new society is absent: no more money unit? disappearance of the accountancy in the factories? Sudden disappearance of the wage work? no more emulation in working? And what about the accounting of the social costs? All these questions are not put, and it was a huge difficulty to treat them without a world experience, whereas the Russian revolution were able only to fit –in spite of or because of the War Communism– within the framework of State capitalism.
To put such questions means return to the starting point, as elaborated by Dietzgen and the Dutch left, that of the "spiritual" factor, driving force of the new society.
And finally what about the place of the different parties claiming the revolution of the councils. One will notice that Pannekoek does not deny the existence of revolutionary parties: they lost their old Jacobinist function of aspiring to seize the power, like a staff of the social war. They embodied the thought of the workers organised in decentralised work groups:
"(They) have a function: to diffuse clearness and knowledge, to study, discuss and formulate the social ideas, and to clarify the mind of the masses by means of their propaganda. The Workers’ Councils are the organs of the practical action and fight of the Working class; the parties have the task of working out the spiritual power. Their activity is essential for the self-emancipation of the working class." (102)
Revolutionary parties ("councils’ communists") and councils are thus strongly linked, on the narrow and difficult way which leads from the wage-slavery to the self-emancipation of the whole of the exploited and oppressed.