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Council communism was a radical Left movement originating in Germany and the Netherlands in the 1920s. Its primary organisation was the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD). Council communism continues today as a theoretical and activist position within Marxism, and also within Libertarian Socialism. The central argument of Council Communism, in contrast to those of Social democracy and Leninist communism, is that workers' councils arising in the factories and municipalities are the natural form of working class organisation and state power. This view is opposed to the Reformist and Bolshevik stress on vanguard parties, parliaments or governments.
The core principle of Council Communism is that the State and the economy should be managed by workers' councils, composed of delegates elected at workplaces and recallable at any moment. As such, council communists oppose state-run "bureaucratic socialism". They also oppose the idea of a "revolutionary party", since council communists believe that a revolution led by a party will necessarily produce a party dictatorship. Council communists support a workers' democracy, which they want to produce through a federation of workers' councils.
The Russian word for council is "soviet," and during the early years of the revolution worker's councils were politically significant in Russia. It was to take advantage of the aura of workplace power that the word became used by Lenin for various political organs. Indeed, the name "Supreme Soviet," by which the parliament was called, and that of the Soviet Union itself make use of this terminology, but do not imply any decentralization.
Furthermore, Council Communists held a critique of the Soviet Union as a capitalist state, believing that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia became a "bourgeois revolution" when a party bureaucracy replaced the old feudal aristocracy. Although most felt the Russian Revolution was working class in character, they believed that since capitalist relations still existed (because the workers had no say in running the economy), the Soviet Union ended up as a state capitalist country, with the state replacing the individual capitalist. Thus, Council Communists support workers' revolutions, but oppose one-party dictatorships.
Council Communists also believed in diminishing the role of the party to one of agitation and propaganda, rejected all participation in elections or parliament, and argued that workers should leave the reactionary trade unions and form one big revolutionary union.
History of Council Communism (Left Communism)
As the Second International decayed at the beginning of World War I, socialists who opposed nationalism and supported international proletarian revolution regrouped. In Germany, two major communist trends emerged. First, the Spartacist League was created by the radical socialist Rosa Luxemburg. A second trend emerged amongst the German rank-and-file unionists, who opposed their unions and organized increasingly radical strikes towards the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. This second trend created the German Left Communist movement that would become the KAPD during the abortive German revolution of 1918-1919.
As the Communist International (Comintern) formed, inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, a Left Communist tendency developed in the Comintern's German, Dutch, Bulgarian and Italian sections. In the United Kingdom, Sylvia Pankhurst's theoretically amorphous group, the Communist Party British Section of the Third International, also identified with the Left Communist tendency.
Alongside these formal Left Communist tendencies, the Italian group led by Amadeo Bordiga is often commonly recognised as a Left Communist tendency, although both Bordiga and the Bordigists disputed this and qualified their politics as separate, distinct and more inline with the Third International's positions than Left Communism. Bordiga also advocated abstention from the trade unions, a position separating him from the more pro-union council communists.
Despite a common general direction, and despite sharing the criticism of Lenin, there were few politics held in common between these movements. An example of this divergence is that the Italians supported the Right of Nations to Self Determination, while the Dutch and Germans rejected this policy (seeing it as a form of bourgeois nationalism). However, all of the Left Communist tendencies opposed what they called "Frontism". Frontism was a tactic endorsed by Lenin, where Communists sought tactical agreements with reformist (social democratic) parties in pursuit of a definite, usually defensive, goal. In addition to opposing "Frontism", the Dutch-German tendency, the Bulgarians and British also refused to participate in bourgeois elections, which they denounced as parliamentarism.
In Germany, the Left Communists were expelled from the Communist Party of Germany, and they formed the Communist Workers Party (KAPD ). Similar parties were formed in the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Britain. The KAPD rapidly lost most of its members and it eventually dissolved. However, some of its militants had been instrumental in organising factory-based unions like the AAUD and AAUD-E, the latter being opposed to separate party organisation (see: Syndicalism).
The leading theoreticians of the KAPD had developed a new series of ideas based on their opposition to party organisation, and their conception of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia as having been a bourgeois revolution. Their leading figures were Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter , as well as Otto Rühle . Rühle later left the KAPD, and was one of the founders of the AAUD-E. Another leading theoretician of Council Communism was Paul Mattick, who later emigrated to the USA. A minor figure in the Council Communist movement in the Netherlands was Marinus van der Lubbe, whose name is attached to the burning of the Reichstag in 1933.
The legacy of the council communist movement was taken up by such groups as Socialisme ou Barbarie, Solidarity (UK) and the Situationist International. Additionally, many Anarchists agree with some of the ideas of council communism. The Bordigist communist movement also retains some features of council communism.
- Anton Pannekoek, Workers' Councils, AK Press, 2003
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