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Theme: The Economic Solution for the Period of Transition from Capitalism to Communism
The Economic Foundations of Council Society / [Henk Canne Meijer], 2016 (1948)
Translated from : De economische grondslagen van de radenmaatschappij ; Historische feiten en ontwikkeling van de zelfstandige arbeidersstrijd / [Henk Canne Meijer, Jan Appel en Ben Sijes]. – Amsterdam : Spartacusbond en Uitgeverij De Vlam, 1972. – 56 p. Original edition: Radencommunisme, 1948. Translated from Dutch by Jac. Johansson, 12 January 2016.
Only about a year ago we accomplished a new, a fourth, edition of the study by the Dutch prewar Group of International Communists, which first appeared in 1931: “The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution.”
As this g.i.c. published a second edition in 1935, it wrote in a preface: “At present the politico-economic ideal of the masses, of either socialist and communist or of catholic, christian or of neutral workers, envisages the State as the big, general caretaker of their interests. The practical implication is that the masses are orientated towards state capitalism, even if they are not conscious of it.”
The preface payed attention to the fact that this situation had its origins in a truth of experience from the period that lies behind us; that the conditions of struggle are completely different in the forthcoming period; that henceforth the self-determination of the masses, born from the necessities of the struggle, becomes the guiding principle of the new ordering of social life.
Under these circumstances the “Fundamental Principles” became a theoretical writing against old state socialist conceptions in the first place.
How these necessities of the struggle and, accordingly, the new experiences have articulated themselves was the problem that occupied Jan Appel, Henk Canne Meijer and B.A. Sijes in this study of 1946, as former members of the g.i.c. (who had fused with the Communistenbond Spartacus). At present, parties and parliaments lose significance and interest. Be it with clarity, or in part still confused, the workers generate waves of strikes and enterprise occupations throughout the whole of Europe.
“Against this opinion it should be remarked that man as an animal species, Homo sapiens, has only existed for some tens of thousands of years, that his civilization in its first appearance in restricted regions dates back some thousands of years only, that the rapid rise of industrial technique and natural science is merely one or two centuries old, and that hence he is still in the first beginnings of his course. Considered from the point of morphology, in bodily structure, in cephalization, he has not changed thereby ; in actual power he has risen more and more quickly to a more and more complete command over his conditions of life. Will this now all at once come to a halt ? On the contrary, he is just beginning. There is every reason to regard what up till now he has experienced and done merely as an introduction to his future actual history. The possibilities of his spiritual apparatus, his brain organ, have not yet by far been exhausted; the necessity for a higher degree of cephalization has not yet exhausted at all. The crisis through which we are passing, however it may have come about, shows the characteristics of being one of the last convulsions in the process of mankind growing together into one self-controlling world community. Lack of capability as yet to organize, master and regulate his own forces in social co-operation, which is recognized as the source of man’s shortcoming, lies in the domain of society. It cannot be done away with by natural science and technique, but only by forces emanating from society itself. Their treatment lies outside the scope of this study, as it would lead us too far beyond the field of natural science.”
From: A. Pannekoek: Anthropogenesis, a Study of the Origin of Man, North-Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1953.
Anthropogenesis: Knowledge of the origins of humanity
The development of state capitalism in Russia and the ever increasing carrying through of a state managed economy in the rest of the world have imposed a closer examination of the economic foundations of a communist society. It is clear by now that the abolition of private property of means of production does not necessarily lead towards communism at all.
This is most apparent in Russia, in which a new class of managers has been constituted, whereas the exploitation of the masses of millions of the population has remained the foundation of society. And that is not all: the collective management of the machines and raw materials, the distribution of the product of labour among the different layers of the population, are of course only possible if the people who have to operate the means of labour are being managed. Hence all social organizations, the press, radio, cinema, have to be synchronized in the service of the exploiting class.
In the rest of the world state capitalism does not dominate, albeit state exploitation takes on larger forms in different countries. But the possessing class in all countries proceeds to have the state conduct and manage the whole economy. The results are the same for the working populations and for the exploited class in Russia: a sharper exploitation, as individual liberty is continuously and increasingly shrinking. Like in Russia, the interests of the exploiting classes are presented as the interests of the populations of millions in the world.
In this way state capitalism in Russia and the state managed economy in the rest of the world lead to an enslavement that is deeper than the people have ever known under liberal capitalism.
There is however a second reason that imposes a further examination of the economic foundations of a communist society. This follows from the fact that the struggle for the daily life interests appears almost completely in the form of “wild strikes”. It appears that the trades unions and the parties can no longer consider themselves as “representatives” of the workers, because usually they fiercely resist against this form of workers’ struggles. In this struggle the strikers elect an “action committee” by themselves from the enterprise personnel and constitute a “workers’ council”. Thereby the organization of the struggle breaks with the syndicalist forms and transforms into a new structure.
But there exists a close connection between the structure of a movement and the world of thought that carries it. If important structural changes occur they always entail changes in the social goal. At this point it is clear that, as the autonomous struggle of the workers becomes common to us, a social goal arises as well by virtue of which we become responsible ourselves for leading and managing social life. In other words: when the “wild strike”, which is the autonomous class struggle, has become our self evident method of struggle, state exploitation as a social goal is simultaneously destructed.
We then are confronted with the question: on what economic foundations has this autonomous management to be built ? We have to reflect upon this question. The following writing is tangible proof that this reflection already takes place.
It is clear that we can only keep the management of social life in our own hands, if we know how to anchor it in the economic laws of the movement of goods. If we cannot give new rules for production and consumption, embodied in the objective movement of goods, the leadership and management will fall into the hands of others. In that case the drive towards state capitalism, the persistence of wage labour, and thereby of exploitation, are inevitable.
It goes without saying that we regard the questions from the position of a simple wage labourer. The abolition of wage labour is the central point. We know however that new systems of production are not “thought out” by zealous reformers, but that they grow in the womb of the old society, where they originate as the fruit of the class struggle. Therefore we first examine some development tendencies in the class struggle that show the germs of this growth. In the second part of this writing the foundations of economic self management by the big association of free and equal producers follow.
In our writing “The Principles of Communist Production and Distribution” the carrying through of communism is being regarded from a different point of view than has been generally taken hitherto. There are mainly three points that necessitate a closer investigation of the foundations of a communist economy. These are:
1. The course of the Russian Revolution of 1917, in which a new dominant and exploiting class developed as a state bureaucracy over the years.
2. The growth of state capitalist tendencies in the form of the modern “managed economy”.
3. The slow rise of a new method of struggle by the workers.
In the past 25 years we have seen again and again how strikes burst out in Europe, not only against the will of the possessing classes, but also against the will of the trades unions. In this movement the leadership of the struggle went over to the enterprise personnels themselves, whereas in movements on a larger scale workers’ councils originated as a bundling of the autonomous class forces of the workers. Hereby it becomes evident that a deep contradiction between the unions’ leaderships and the working population has emerged. Already in 1920 A. Pannekoek has characterized the present nature of the syndicalist movement as follows:
“In the same way as parliamentarism represents the spiritual power of the leaders over the workers’ masses, the syndicalist movement represents their material power […]. In developed capitalism, and still more in the era of imperialism, the trades unions have increasingly become gigantic syndicates whose development reveals the same tendency as the bourgeois state bodies have done previously. They have engendered a class of functionaries, a bureaucracy, that disposes of all means of power of the organization, of the money, of the press, of the appointment of lower functionaries. Their jurisdiction often reaches still further, so as to have become masters of the masses instead of their servants, having identified themselves with this organization. The trades unions also concur with the bourgeois state and its bureaucracy in that their members are never able to force through their will against that of the bureaucrats, in spite of the democracy that is supposed to reign in them. Every resistance is broken by the artfully constructed apparatus of statutes and standing orders; every movement is smothered before it reaches higher regions. Only by tough endurance for years, sometimes an opposition succeeds in obtaining a sober result, mostly boiling down to a change of personnel. Therefore, in the last years before the war of 1914-1918 and afterwards, the trades unions’ members often rebelled – in England, Germany, America – going on strike for their own account against the will of the leaders and the decisions of the union. The fact that this occurs as something quite ordinary, and that it is also conceived in this way, already reveals that the organization does not wholly belong to its members, but is alien to them; that the workers do not control their union, in spite of having originated from them, but that this union is an alien power that controls them; again in the same way as the state. As soon as the resistance calms down, the old rule is regenerated: it is capable of maintaining itself, notwithstanding the hatred and the impotent bitterness in the masses, because it rests on the indifference and on the lack of a clear comprehension, and because it is supported by the conviction that the trades union is of necessity as the only means for the workers to find strength against capital in their ranking up […].”
It does not require much acuity to understand that this state of affairs is untenable in the long run and that the working class will look for new ways for its activity with ups and downs.
At first sight it might seem strange that the adoption of a new method of struggle by the workers necessitates a closer investigation of the principles of communist production and distribution. Taking a closer look this is very comprehensible because the totality of conceptions that we can summarize as “future ideal” does not originate in the first place by books or by verbal or radio propaganda, albeit the influence of the latter should not be underestimated. It is constituted from the experiences of everyday life in the struggle for existence. At present the politico-economic ideal of the large masses of workers, be they social democratic, communist, catholic, christian or neutral, is that the state should be the big general caretaker of their interests. The practical consequence is that the masses support a state capitalist development, whether they are conscious of it or not.
This state capitalist orientation is the spiritual residue of a truth of experience from a past period. We should not forget the fact that the class of wage labourers is still very young. Albeit machine production on the foundation of wage labour already began at the end of the eighteenth Century in England, in Europe at large it only obtained broader chances for development about 1860. Only then a numerous class of wage labourers was constituted in Europe. This new class was subject to an exploitation without limits and it had yet to learn the first principles of resistance by organization. The emerging trades unions taught them this, as they were the natural leaders of both the organized and the unorganised workers, in so far as they were engaged in struggle. Under pressure of the appalling conditions, of course, the desire for a better society emerged as well; a socialist society, for which the foundation of their own struggle was taken as a guideline. Just like leading and managing the struggle was the task of the leaders, the proper authority over the social metabolism would rest with them.
In that era of capitalism expanding over the Earth there can, of course, be no question of carrying through communist production. Consequently, the struggle for existence not only centered on the struggle for wages and labour time, but simultaneously on social reforms within the framework of capitalism. Parliamentarism became an important weapon, but one in which the same relations developed as in trades unionism. The work had to be done by the parliamentary delegates, whereas the masses only had to fill in a voting bill. The amelioration of social life appeared much more as the work of the leaders than that of the masses.
Everyone knows that this period has resulted in a raise of the level of existence for the large majority of the working population. And so the fact that trades unions and parliamentarism were, and still are, the appropriate means to bring about an ever growing amelioration of the level of existence became a truth of experience in the consciousness. A different appreciation of the state came about. Whereas previously the state was only seen as an oppressive institution for the working population, the conviction settled in that, in the long run, it should completely change its character and grow out as a general institution of welfare. The “future ideal” took the form of the ordering of social life by the state. The state socialist view of the future appeared as the natural product of the method of struggle in this period. This determined the spiritual content of broad masses, which we see come to the fore so clearly in this era.
This interconnection of the conditions of the struggle for existence and the “future ideal” that they constituted is so intimate that it even permits to explain different shades of this ideal. In this way the state socialist view of society particularly developed among the factory workers properly speaking; specifically in large scale industry. Here the workers are in the same enterprise for years, sometimes for all of their lives, working in a strictly organized labour system. There is very little room for self initiative, both at work and at the occasion of strikes. The bosses are much more powerful than the unions. Here the working conditions have to be settled at the conference table.
But not all trades lived in these conditions, for example the dockers and the building workers did not. Here the men are hired for short term labour, or frequently change jobs, at the consequence of a period of joblessness following one of a short term job. To this adds that in the past, especially in the construction industry, one was confronted with many small entrepreneurs. Strikes in these companies came about much easier than in other professions, whereas these movements where mainly led by the workers themselves. Here the predominance of the feeling of a strong dependency on the leaders of the organization was absent, and self activity and responsibility were much more in the centre. This explains that revolutionary syndicalism and anarchism had their bulwarks in these circles. From this method of struggle a vision of the future emerged that was strongly opposed against the state and the “leaders”. It took much more the form of a society of voluntarily cooperating working groups, who should regulate the social metabolism. Over the past thirty years however anarchism and the revolutionary syndicalist movement have considerably lost significance, because both in the ports and in the building industry the possessing class has strengthened its power. Small strikes continuously ended in defeats, which in the Netherlands entailed a change in the character of the revolutionary workers’ movement as a consequence. At the time this was organized around the N.A.S. (“Nationaal Arbeids Secretariaat”). It continuously went over to applying the same methods as the social democratic union movement, the N.V.V (“Nederlands Verbond van Vakverenigingen”) and look ! The change in the method of struggle very rapidly entailed a change in the vision of the future of a socialist society. The “free socialism”, once a bulwark of revolutionary syndicalism, was abandoned and was replaced by a state socialist vision of society. The N.A.S. temporarily joined the Red Trades Unions’ International of Moscow!
From all this it clearly follows that the emergence of a new method of struggle, as we can already observe in practical life, has a much deeper bearing than just a struggle for conditions of existence in a different form. It is for sure that the changed method of struggle has to bring about a different vision of the future of the new social order. In short: simultaneously one acquires different conceptions about the foundations of a socialist society. And, where in the new method of struggle the management of the struggle is being put into the hands of the enterprise personnel, a vision of society emerges in which the management of social life is attributed to these organs as well: the regulation of industry under the immediate management of producers and consumers, without taking a detour via the state. According to what economic foundations does this society function ? What are the new juridical relations with regards to production and consumption ? Before examining these questions in more depth, we have to say something about the history of the new method of struggle and what it is related to.
In March 1917 the old Tsarist Russian Empire collapsed under the pressure of war. An army of fifteen millions was on the battlefield and its supplies deteriorated the food supply of the whole country, until that of the army itself failed. Both army and hinterland decomposed, which finally led to the fall of the government in revolutionary Petersburg – the present Leningrad. With the relative absence of government that thereby came about, Russia showed an image of great confusion, but at the same time of a great liberty of movement for the activity of the people as well. For the first time in history large public meetings were held in which everybody could say what he wanted and, when there was a lack of space, streets and public squares provided plenty of it.
The first revolution, in March 1917, brought about freedom of meeting, of organization, and of press, but provided no solution for the questions of everyday life properly. The new government was indecisive whether to start peace negotiations with the German rulers, as it considered itself bound to the treaties of the Tsar that precluded a separate peace.
War therefore continued and hence the process of starvation of the population as well. Monetary inflation took on still larger proportions. There was a lack of raw materials for many enterprises, whereas hoarders and speculators succeeded in utilizing the general mess to obtain profits unheard of at the expense of the working population (One should read on this issue: “Why control of production ? The incomes of capitalists and wage earners”, written by Lenin on July 8, 1917, “Collected Works”, Volume XX).
In this situation a movement emerged among the workers, foremost in the large industrial areas, who did not want to just acquiesce with the decisions of the entrepreneurs. They did however not use the trades unions, who practically just were being founded at that time. By contrast in every enterprise the workers elected an enterprise committee or workers’ council that expressed the desires of the personnel as a whole. These enterprise councils often acted against the dismissal of workers or against the closure of factories. In June 1917 they demanded to control the administration of an enterprise for the first time, in order to see to it that the raw materials would not leave the enterprise without a valid reason. In October a metal factory wanted to shrink the enterprise because of lack of material, upon which the enterprise council again demanded to see the book keeping, as every order by the enterprise management had to be signed by the representatives of the personnel as well. One can say that this movement demanded co-management in the engagement and dismissal of workers, in the fixation of prices and in the day to day affairs of the enterprise. Sometimes the personnel demanded the dismissal of a director or of hated functionaries as well. It should be taken into account that this co-management was not a task of the trades unions’ functionaries, but followed from the seething initiative, the self activity of the masses. On the other hand, it should be noticed that the struggle was not about the expropriation of the possessors, about the abolition of capitalism. The control of production, exercised by the enterprise personnel, only meant controlling the capitalists (this is continued in the chapter on enterprise control).
We illustrate this by a statistics of the number of directors and functionaries that had to be dismissed under pressure of the workers:
Functionaries and directors dismissed in 1917:
Source: Fr. Pollock, Die planwirtschaftlichen Versuche in der Sowjet-Union 1917-1927 [The attempts at a planned economy in the Soviet Union 1917-1927]. – Leipzig, 1929, p. 25.
Of course the social democratic Minister of Labour could not let this movement spread by which it was not the Minister, but the working population itself who tried to determine the course of its life. And so he ordered that the enterprise councils were not permitted to interfere with enterprise management. For the left social democrats, the Bolsheviks, this was just what they wanted. They engaged the movement of the masses for enterprise control in their propaganda and organized the enterprise councils in a federate way. How little these enterprise councils coincided with the trades unions is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that in the second revolution, the October revolution, 70 percent of the enterprise delegates in revolutionary Petersburg was unorganised. Later, after the Bolsheviks had come to power, the field of operation of enterprise control was delimited by the decree of November 14, in which the different measures taken by the workers, deemed illegal under the Kerensky government, were recorded as lawful rights.
In this way it appeared as if the working class took a big step forward. Because committing illegal acts, like the interference by workers with enterprise affairs has now become a legal right, indeed in fact a social obligation, isn’t it ? But in reality it was a very dubious victory. The decree of November 14 was a delimitation of new rights, of what was permitted and what was not. For the masses it meant that practically all constitution of a proper social will had come to an end. Henceforth it prescribed the framework in which they were allowed to evolve. For the enterprise workers the revolution had practically finished and now the revolution could really start for those who were in government and who would organize production. Therefore the delimitation of the rights of the enterprise personnel in the Russian Revolution simultaneously signified the beginning of the pushing back of the working class from interference with the industry.
The second step in this direction consisted of taking away the competences, henceforth enshrined in law, from the enterprise personnel in practice, by shifting them to government agencies. The Bolsheviks did not hesitate and started immediately by “synchronizing” the enterprise councils with the trades unions, that had become state organs. Already in January 1918 the government party organized a joint congress of trades unions and enterprise councils in order to bring about cooperation between their often opposed interests. The enterprise councils had to be absorbed by the trades unions. Therefore a different structure of the trades unions was necessary. They had to be rebuild into industry unions, in which the enterprise organizations with their enterprise councils would constitute the lower “cells”. Because the enterprise councils organized workers on the basis of the enterprise and not, like the trades unions at the time, on the basis of their profession.
The enterprise councils put up a considerable resistance against this proposal, which is quite understandable. It was obvious that any self movement, the very life principle of the enterprise councils, would cease to exist. The proposal was acclaimed nonetheless.
At the following congress of trades unions (April 20, 1918) the third step was accomplished. The Bolsheviks had the majority and succeeded in passing through the following resolution:
“Conflicts between workers and enterprise managements immediately have to be put before the central executive board of the trades union for a decision. In case the workers refuse to submit to the decisions of the trades unions’ authorities, they immediately have to be expelled from the trades union and bear all the entailing consequences.” (Taken from the “Labour Messenger”, no 5/7, Organ of the Peoples’ Commissariat of Labour).
These “entailing consequences” were not minor issues. As the mandatory membership of the trades unions had been introduced, they simultaneously meant dismissal from the enterprise. And because the trades unions had been given the task of distributing foods this meant the withdrawal of food cards. In this way the “dictatorship of the proletariat” became a dictatorship of the trades union’s leadership already in April 1918, which would soon grow into a bureaucracy.
In order to shed still more light on the power of the trades unions we emphasize that they had taken on the leadership of industry together with the Supreme Economic Council. Its interest was to put the whole working population under custody of the trades unions. To this end it was decided, at the January congress as well, that only organizations that were recognized by the Central Council of Trades Unions were legally admitted, whereas mandatory membership was introduced by fact, albeit not as a legal obligation. The party cell of an enterprise called for an enterprise meeting in which it proposed to join the trades union collectively, which was decided by the raising of hands. If the enterprise joined the trades union in this way all newly engaged workers automatically became members of the trades union, their membership fees being subtracted from their wages. The enormous growth of the trades unions therefore constituted no criterion of the class consciousness of the workers. By contrast, their membership had become a “formal obligation” (Tomsky).
“The workers accepted the subtraction of the membership fees as an order from above completely independent of their will.”
With all this a situation had been created that may be regarded as quite peculiar for a socialist society. As the workers were only allowed, even were obliged to be members of the governmental trades union organization, they were practically bereft of the freedom of organization. Until 1921 one could still point out that these trades unions were at the same time involved in the organization and management of industry. But as the trades unions were pushed out of the leadership of production at the introduction of the New Economic Policy (N.E.P.) in March 1921, even this smoothing over became null and void.
In this way the course of the Russian Revolution provides us with the image of a constant pushing back of the working population from controlling its own life. We will return to this when treating the different subjects separately.
As the German front collapsed in the autumn of 1918 and soldiers deserted by thousands, German navy officers wanted to wage a final battle against the English navy. The marines felt, rightly or wrongly, that they all would find a sure death in this, which gave rise to a massive refusal of military service on one of the warships. Once on this road the marines were forced to go further, otherwise the mutineer ship would be torpedoed. They hissed the red flag, which led to insurgency on other ships as well.
The liberating act was committed. From this an event after the other evolved. The marines had to go further at the penalty of being shot down by the territorial army. After having taken Kiel they marched to Hamburg in order to extend the insurgency. How will they be acclaimed there ? Will they be driven back ?
There was no question of any resistance. The workers declared themselves in solidarity with the marines by hundreds of thousands. Organizationally the activity discharged itself in the constitution of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. This was the start of the victory of revolution in the whole of Germany. The peculiar thing about this: albeit German censorship controlled all news about the Russian revolution of 1917, albeit no party or movement had carried propaganda for workers’ councils, yes, in spite of the Russian council structure being unknown to the German working class, in a few days time a whole network of workers’ councils had been cast over Germany.
Yet this “spontaneous growth” of the workers’ councils had its prehistory. During the war its germs already appeared in the acts of the factory population. As is well known, the trades unions have a system of “men of confidence” in the enterprises: workers charged with all kinds of smaller functions and who constitute an intermediate chain between the leadership and the members. The men of confidence brought all kinds of grievances to the attention of the leadership, who had the task of removing them subsequently. During the war the work rhythm was driven up to the extreme, whereas the costs of living necessitated to review the wages.
By the detour of the men of confidence pressure was exerted from the enterprises on the union boards to stand up in the interest of the workers. However, the trades unions had engaged in a united front with the imperial government in order to win the war, and so the men of confidence were knocking on the wrong door. As it soon turned out that “difficult” workers were called into military service at the front line, it became obvious to the men of confidence at once that it was wiser to have no grievances at all.
The men of confidence did no longer consult their union boards, but conferred together at the enterprise. In reality they constituted a nucleus that incorporated the grievances of all enterprise workers. So in 1917 we see, at war time, a series of “wild” strikes traverse Germany. They appear as spontaneous movements, but in reality a lot of discussion and mutual deliberation had preceded them. In these actions it was of no importance whether a worker was organized, neither whether he was a catholic, a socialist or something else. Here the mass had to struggle as a class union under its own leadership on the organizational basis of the enterprise. Any other way of struggling was impossible under the given circumstances.
This at once laid the foundation for the massive acting in the form of workers’ councils, as soon as the workers got some freedom of movement. The latter came about as soon as the old government apparatus lost its authority and collapsed. In fact it was not swept away. It was not conquered in a fierce struggle but sank away from lack of inner strength. And the newly constituted workers’ councils took power in many areas, such as in Berlin, Hamburg, the Ruhr area, Saxony and Central Germany.
However these workers’ councils have achieved bitterly little. Whereas the first revolution in Russia had not yet brought a decision on the question of war and peace, at the consequence of the movement receiving thrusts for its development time and again, the goal of the movement for the large masses of the population in Germany, peace, was obtained at once. Henceforth it was essential to built up Germany on new foundations, which soon revealed that the large masses were still weighted down by illusions about bourgeois democracy. The social democrats did indeed cheer the workers’ councils as a provisional form of government, whose composition should be “democratic”. Delegates of the social democrats, the independents, of the communist party, of the trades unions and of the cooperatives should obtain seats according to the strength of the respective parties. Thereby the workers’ council ceased to be the organ of the united enterprise personnels, and became a formation of parties, in which these made a mess at their will. Anyway they could only have a provisional task because, according to the social democratic conception, legislation should not rest in the hands of the workers’ councils but of a bourgeois parliament. The enterprise councils would however obtain a permanent character. They would constitute the form in which economic co-management would be realized. Their competences would be described in the framework of the constitution, so they could no longer be organs for struggle by the enterprise personnels. Their tasks would mainly be situated on the terrain of social legislation, something like policing services for the state.
It cannot be said that the German working class let itself be caught in the trap. Large parts of the factory proletariat waged a fierce struggle for the preservation and extension of the workers’ councils and the enterprise organizations. That they have achieved so little is largely due to the fact that they had to wage too much struggle for their own existence. The possessing class went all out, by means of social democracy, the trades unions and the White guards of the Prussian aristocracy, in order to destroy the movement. Yet it took five years of bloody struggle, in which 35,000 revolutionary workers lost their lives, before the movement was definitively broken.
In this struggle mainly three social currents collided. Social democracy in the first place, that wanted to use bourgeois parliament as an organ to gradually nationalize the big industries. In the second place those revolutionary communists who struggled for a direct expropriation of capitals by putting politico-economic power exclusively in the hands of the workers’ councils. In the third place the revolutionary (syndicalist) trades union movement, that rejected the conquest of political power but wanted to expand its organizations to a degree permitting to take over the enterprises. Rudolf Rocker wrote still in 1920 in his “Declaration of principles of syndicalism”, on page 6,
that the syndicalists “do not see the trades union as a transitory product of capitalist society, but as the germ of the future, socialist organization.”
Probably this has been written under the impression of the large adherence to the syndicalist trades unions’ movement in 1919, that obtained about two to three hundred thousand members according to several sources. At that time the masses started to organize on the basis of the enterprise, in the form of enterprise organizations that worked autonomously, and that were not even connected among themselves. Seemingly the working class made a big step backward at the organizational level. Whereas previously the power of the workers was concentrated in a few large organizations, it then fell apart in hundreds of independent enterprise organizations. In reality however this was the only way in which the power of the workers could deploy itself and the enterprise organizations consequently became the horror of the bourgeoisie, the social democrats and the unions.
After more than a year efforts were made to unite all the dispersed enterprise organizations in one national union, in order to put up a closed front against the conservative forces. The initiative came from Hamburg and the first meeting at the national level took place at Hanover in April 1920.
It represented Hamburg, Bremen, Bremerhafen, Hanover, Berlin, Central Germany, Silesia and the Ruhr area. Albeit the police of “the most democratic republic in the world” dispersed this meeting, it was a few days late. Because the Allgemeine Arbeiter Union Deutschlands (A.A.U.D.) had been founded and the most important provisional tactical guidelines had already been decided upon. These tactics boiled down to combating the legal enterprise councils and rejecting any parliamentarism, whereas the organizational structure would be of a completely different kind than that of the trades unions.
In August 1920, less than four months later, the A.A.U.D. held its second congress. It represented 80,000 members, and at its fourth congress, in June 1921, the organization had obtained a strength of 200,000 members. However, one cannot infer from this the degree in which the new form of organization had taken root among the workers. Because, in the meantime, a split had already taken place within the organization, entailing a loss of about 200,000 members. Many enterprise organizations still existed that where part of the syndicalist trades unions’ movement or of the Red Trades Unions’ International of Moscow. A general estimate amounts to a total membership of no more than half a million.
Before dealing with the questions that led to several splits in the movement for enterprise organizations it is important to discern what contradictions manifested themselves within the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (K.P.D.). Because the name “enterprise organization” is just a word that can be pronounced without giving it much thought. But in reality it comprises a new world. It comprises a complete revolution in the conception of workers’ unity, of tactics, of the relation between masses and leadership, of the dictatorship of the proletariat, of the relation between state and society, of communism as a political and economic system. In all these questions a stream of renewal went through the workers. The important question is being raised: Who were in fact at the origins of this renewal ? Who were its bearers ? Who were most receptive of it ?
As we have already pointed out, no organization in Germany had ever made propaganda for enterprise organizations at all, and therefore none had spoken of the questions that the emergence of this movement entailed. This means that the current of renewal had its point of departure in the factory proletariat. The new conceptions were born from the masses themselves. Of course this revolution in conceptions did not appear ready-made as a flawless and rounded off conception of society. Besides the new, much of the old went across, as will always be the case. But one thing is certain: the renewed stream was not the work of a “conscious vanguard” but was the product of the despised “dumb masses”. As appeared from the sequel, the “conscious vanguard”, in so far as it was organized in the K.P.D., was not able to take part in the renewal. It was too heavily burdened with old traditions.
Immediately after the foundation of the K.P.D. the complex of conceptions that we summarize as “enterprise organization” became the big bone of contention within this organization. As it is known, during the war the “Spartacus League” had been constituted under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In December 1918 this league fused with the “Internationalists” from Dresden and the “Left Radicals” from Hamburg and constituted the K.P.D.. The provisional government had called for new elections of the national assembly. The young K.P.D. immediately had to decide whether it would participate in these elections or not. The opinions of the old, of tradition, heavily collided with the new. The large majority of the K.P.D. consisted of revolutionary men of confidence from the enterprises who found themselves opposed to the central organ, among which Liebknecht and Luxemburg, whose members had always fulfilled a function in the old workers’ movement and who thereby were still tied to the prevailing conceptions. The central organ was “for” participation in the elections but the delegates rejected this by a large majority. This means that the K.P.D. was anti-parliamentary in its composition at that time. This anti-parliamentarism upheld that the sole purpose of the national assembly was to provide a legal framework for the bourgeoisie and its adherence to calmly confirm its position of power, whereas everywhere workers’ councils and enterprise organizations were about to emerge. In the opinion of the majority the difference between bourgeois and proletarian democracy had to be strongly put forward right now by the slogan: All power to the workers’ councils. Political power can not be conquered on the basis of bourgeois democracy, but only on the basis of the workers’ councils founded on the enterprise personnels. However, the party’s central organ did not see a symptom of renewal in this anti-parliamentarism, but rather a falling back into primitive conceptions of the workers stemming from the beginnings of capitalist development. It opened a fierce struggle against this “syndicalism” that would destroy the K.P.D.. In reality the anti-parliamentarism of the new current had nothing to do with syndicalism. Indeed it was its very opposite in its main characteristics. Whereas, with the syndicalists and anarchists, it is founded on the rejection of political power, of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the new current it was viewed as the necessary precondition for the working class to take over political power. In this way it was therefore a “Marxist” anti-parliamentarism.
It goes without saying that the party’s central organ was bound to take a different position on the trades union question as well. According to the party’s central organ, the leadership of the trades unions stood side by side with the possessing class and there could be no question as well of “conquering” the trades unions. It deemed however possible to have revolutionaries occupy union boards locally. In that case the local union organization should be soaked off from the central trades union, and all these revolutionary trades unions would have to unite nationally in a revolutionary movement. As we know this tactics has later been applied. They united in the Red Trades Unions’ International. But the large majority of the K.P.D. rejected this trades unions’ tactics and put all its forces behind the extension of the enterprise organizations. The central organ of the K.P.D. was nevertheless determined to push through its conceptions, albeit it was very conscious that this would require splitting the K.P.D.
The operation was carried out at the notorious “Heidelberg congress”. Seen from the point of view of political smart numbers, excluding 75 percent of the membership from the organization in a “democratic way” undoubtedly has to be called a handsome piece of work. In the framework of our discussion it is not necessary to describe the procedures. Anyone who is interested may read “De Nieuwe Tijd”, 1919, p. 778. We suffice with citing “that the proceeding by the Centre is the opposite of what is appropriate in a communist party and reminds of the foulest practices by leaders from the time of the old social democracy” (Quotation from A. Pannekoek from the aforementioned discussion).
The expelled soon united in a new party, the Kommunistische Arbeiter Partei Deutschlands (K.A.P.D.). It would play an important role in the German mass movements, in the critique of the political corruption of the K.P.D., in the critique of the foreign policies of Russia and... in the internal struggle within the enterprise organizations. The old volumes of the party’s paper, the Kommunistische Arbeiter Zeitung (K.A.Z.), belong, from a Marxist point of view, to the best literature in an era of persecution by the Muscovite workers’ movement, regardless that the K.A.P.D. was itself still burdened with all sorts of old traditions.
The young council movement in Germany made clear at once that important transformations had taken place in the world of thought of many workers. But these transformations did not constitute a unity in any way and so different directions in the council movement immediately appeared. Generally it was agreed upon that the renewed organization of the workers should proceed on the foundation of the enterprise and that its structure had to prevent the constitution of new “big bosses” or of a “gang of leaders”. Also it was agreed upon that the new organization should be an organization of millions, encompassing the large majority of the working class. In addition it was agreed that this organization should exercise the dictatorship.
The most known propagandist of the council movement, Herman Gorter, writes in his pamphlet “The Organisation for the Proletariat’s Class Struggle”:
“An organization of millions, many millions of conscious communists is necessary. Without these we will not be victorious […].”
But already at the outset of the foundation of the Allgemeine Arbeiter Union the point of contention arose whether the general workers’ union should be the only organization of the militant workers, or whether a political party (like the K.A.P.D.) would be necessary alongside it. This matter of dispute led to a split already in December 1920. Half of the enterprise organizations left the general union and united in a separate national organization. They called themselves “Allgemeine Arbeiter Union Einheitsorganisation” (A.A.U.E.). In 1922 this organization announced a membership size of 212,000, whereas it already felt strong enough to take over “six percent of the enterprises”. In the same year the A.A.U.E. had the following publications:
“Die Einheitsfront” (The Unity front), Berlin;
The independent paper “Die Aktion” with Pfemfert as chief editor waged also a forceful propaganda for the Unity Organization.
The development of the class struggle had engendered two main currents within the council movement. Which was the right one ? Or did they both both partly embody the correct way to struggle ? Or were they both wrong ? In other words: In what respect does this struggle within the council movement enrich our insight in the struggle for communism ? In order to examine these questions we need to take a closer look into both currents.
The position of the A.A.U.D. and the K.A.P.D. has been most clearly formulated in Gorter’s “Open Letter to Comrade Lenin” (1921). Gorter gives a clear exposition of Marxist anti-parliamentarism and shows how the working class in Western Europe and the United States of America can only rely on its own forces and cannot expect to find allies in the peasants or the petty bourgeoisie. After the “Open Letter” Gorter published the pamphlets “The General Workers’ Union” and “The Organisation for the Proletariat’s Class Struggle”, that treat the conceptions at the time of the relationship between the Unions and the working class as a whole; the relationship between the enterprise organizations and the party and that between party, Unions and the dictatorship of the proletariat more in particular.
The origins of the conceptions of the A.A.U.D. and the K.A.P.D. clearly show the traces of their emergence from a stagnating revolution. Yes, some twenty five years later we can say: from a revolution in reflux. Would the revolution have gone ahead immediately, would the enterprise personnels have started expropriating the enterprises and have taken the politico-economic power into their hands through their workers’ councils everywhere, all these questions would have looked different. But this did not happen. Albeit hundreds of thousands struggled against German capital and its accomplices, they could not take over the task from the twenty million proletarians of Germany. The large masses watched passively how the struggling minority was butchered by the white gangs. Therefore, already in those days it was clear that the revolution would be a lengthy process. Gorter wrote in his “Open Letter”:
“As the revolution in Western Europe will be very difficult and consequently of probably very long duration, there will be a long period of transition, in which the Trade Unions are no longer any good, and in which there are no Soviets as yet. This period of transition will be filled out with the struggle against the Trade Unions, their re-forming, their replacing by better organizations. You need not fear, we will have ample time! Once again this will be so, not because we of the Left want it that way, but because the revolution needs to have these new organizations. The revolution cannot triumph without them.”
For this reason the organization “of many, many millions”, the General Workers’ Union, had to be constructed in combat. And as soon as the latter would comprise the large majority of the proletariat, it would be the organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat. A dictatorship supported by the majority of the working class and therefore a real class dictatorship.
Yet according to the vision of the A.A.U.D. and the K.A.P.D. this mass organization would not suffice to ensure victory, because the large masses do not dispose of sufficient knowledge to be their own direct leaders. Because:
“Large parts of the proletariat lack sufficient knowledge. They do not know enough of economy and politics, of the national and international political and economic events, of their interconnections and impact on the revolution. They act if they should not and they do not act when they should. They will often be mistaken.”
That is why it was esteemed necessary that the smartest minds of the working class would rally in a party, in order to wage propaganda and bring about clarification within the A.A.U.D. in particular. This party would however not stand apart from and above the masses. Gorter says of this:
“At best one could say: it is the brains of the proletariat, its eye, its navigator. But that would not be completely correct either. Because it makes the party a part of a whole. And that it is not here and does not want to be here. In Western Europe and North America it wants to riddle the whole proletariat like a sour dough, to appropriate the whole and so be the whole itself. Here it wants to become a union by the connection of itself, the enterprise organizations and the proletariat.”
These were the two organs who had to gain victory together and who had to exercise the dictatorship together.
“It is true: Enterprise organization, A.A.U., alone can not conquer victory. Neither can the party. But both can do so together […] The General Workers’ Union and the party, that is the proletariat […]. Will the party obtain the biggest power ? Or will perhaps the General Workers’ Union become so solid that it obtains preponderance ? We do not know. It depends from the course of the revolution.”
If we try to find out, after so many years of fierce class struggle in Germany, whether the A.A.U.D. or the A.A.U.E. has had a correct appreciation of the developments, we presently come to the conclusion that it has been a big miscalculation. It was thought that the sudden growth of the enterprise organizations about 1920 would more or less proceed in a straight line in subsequent struggle. Because the trades unions had openly taken the side of capital it was thought that the enterprise organizations would develop into a mass movement of “many, many millions”, as an organizational counterpart of the trades unions. Departing from the correct recognition that the working class can only struggle and gain victory as an organised class, it was thought that the workers would gradually construct a new, lasting, ever growing organization in the struggle. The growth of the A.A.U.D., or of the A.A.U.E. would be the criterion at which the development of combativity and of class consciousness could be measured.
However: albeit a period of fierce class struggle rent through Germany that would ultimately end in fascism, the A.A.U.D., the A.A.U.E. and the K.A.P.D. shrank ever more in the process. No more than a few nuclei were left here and there from the large enterprise organizations in the past, altogether some thousands members from a total of twenty million proletarians. In these circumstances both the A.A.U.D. and the A.A.U.E. had obtained the character of a party, because only the intransigent revolutionaries had stuck to their guns. They no longer were “general” enterprise organizations.
From this in December 1931 the consequence was drawn that the A.A.U.D. untied itself from the K.A.P.D. and fused with the A.A.U.E.. After eleven years of divorce they came together again. It was realized that the old illusion, in which the general Workers’ Union would become the big assembly basin of the combative workers, had to be done away with. This was expressed in the new name of the now fused organization, that henceforth would be called: “Kommunistische Arbeiter Union” (K.A.U.).
The new name in fact expressed that one was conscious of the gradual change that had been effected in the principles of the movement for enterprise organizations. This change was related in particular to what has to be conceived as “the organized class”. The A.A.U. used to think that i t would organize the working class and that the millions of workers would all become members of its organization. But in the course of the years the A.A.U. had perpetually waged the propaganda that the workers should organize their own struggle in strike movements by themselves, by connecting all action committees with each other. Thereby they acted as organized class, not belonging to the A.A.U.. In other words, struggling as an organized class was no longer considered as dependent on a fixed organization, constructed in advance.
This change in the conception of the organized class affected many domains. In the first place: the significance of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Because “the organized class” no longer coincided with the membership of an A.A.U., the latter could no longer be the organ of class dictatorship. And the whole question from the incipient period of the council movement whether the A.A.U. or the K.A.P.D. would acquire the most power, thereby became obsolete. In the newer conception neither of both would exert dictatorship, that would reside with the struggling masses who would exercise all functions of combat without being members of the A.A.U. The significance of the A.A.U., and later of the K.A.U., was reduced to waging of a clear communist propaganda within the struggling masses; to propelling the struggle by showing a resolute path. In this the K.A.U. could cooperate practically in the struggle with its revolutionary experience for over years.
The significance of the change of conception of what the organized class is, was however still more far reaching. It entailed a complete revision of the current conceptions of communist society. At the outset of the movement for enterprise organizations in Germany one still held the conviction that the A.A.U. would become the mass organization of the proletariat. The A.A.U. was not only seen as the organ of dictatorship but as the organ for synthesizing economic life as well.
This is evident from the declaration by the A.A.U.E. In 1923 that it already was capable to “take over” six percent of the enterprises. If the organization would become big enough, the whole of economic life would fall under its management. Again we clearly see the interrelation between the method of struggle and the vision of the future social order.
But how should the revolutionary enterprise councils exercise their management ? The whole industry is enormously specialized and all enterprises are dependent upon each other. How would it be possible to connect all these enterprises in an organic way, if the authority over the means of production would not rest with central nodes ?
Here occurred a conflict with the revolutionary workers in their own conceptions. Because as the enterprise organizations claimed a very large autonomy and a large measure of discretion for their decisions, one held the opinion that they should have a large autonomy in a communist industry as well. And so the debate on this question developed on the foundation of more or less “centralism” or “federalism”. An important current denied the possibility of a “free” communism very decidedly. And so in 1923 the K.A.P.D. published a pamphlet “The Genesis of a New Society”, in which was exposed that communism should be constructed centrally: “the more centralized, the better.”
For the time being, the German council movement could not develop autonomous conceptions about the social management of the industry. On the one hand one made do with the old conceptions of syndicalist trades unionism, in which the syndicates “take over” the enterprises and on the other hand one was still caught in the Bolshevik conception in which the central apparatus regulates the social metabolism and distributes the “popular income”.
Because one had not advanced in the question of the “organized class”, one did not arrive at a clear way of posing the problem and a discussion about federalism or centralism was doomed to infertility. Communist industry is not an organizational question of more or less centralism, but is about the carrying through of different principles for the movement of goods in society, including the distribution of the social product. In other words, it is about the character of the new juridical relations, for both the distinct enterprises and the right of every worker to his share of the social product.
Russian state capitalism and the modern “managed economy” have taught us much. What difference does it make for us if we are exploited by the leaders of the big trusts or by the leaders of state production ? For the millions of wage labourers the stakes are to abolish exploitation itself; that is to break through the wage relation itself. The wage relation means that the share of the worker is not determined by the productivity of labour but that he receives as much “wage” as the leaders of economic life wish to grant him, or how much the workers force them to be granted. The wage relation therefore simultaneously implies that the workers are dominated by a power that is placed above them. Therefore the crucial question of communist transformation is: what economical changes, what change in juridical relations the workers have to bring about in the revolution in order to keep the power in their own hands ? What are the economic conditions of the abolition of wage labour ?
The investigation of these questions could only be taken in hand after the council movement had liberated itself from the traditions about “the organized class” and it became clear that the working population finds its combative unity as a class, without joining an existing organization. It was inaugurated by the book “Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution”. This was first published in German by the A.A.U.D. In 1930. The first Dutch edition appeared in 1931, the second in 1935.
The “Fundamental Principles” do not aim to be some sort of “plan” of how to arrange society in the most beautiful and just way, but connect the practical day to day class struggle with the struggle about the domination of society in an organic unity, in a new vision of society. They constitute the economical expression of what will be executed politically in the mass movement.
They draw the consequences from the activity of the workers as autonomous combative unity. Once the workers have come to power through their councils, and have learned to manage their own movements in a permanent struggle, they can only confirm their power if they keep all functions of social life in their own hands.
A complete revolution in the movement of industry itself is necessary, that no “governments” but the workers themselves have to carry through. Then the leadership of industry does not follow the detour via the state but is performed under their own leadership and management.
The “Fundamental Principles” show the character of the new juridical relations in economic life and bring about unity again of the new method of struggle and the image of a future new society. As such they are the fruit of the mass movements after 1917.
What prospects does the upcoming social development offer to a further advance of the autonomous struggle of the workers ? Is it really sure that we are confronted here with a really new development ?
About this question doubt is no longer possible. Certainly, if the working class can achieve an amelioration of its miserable position by way of the trades unions movement and through parliament, by the old way, it will evade the more difficult road of autonomous struggle. But is there any chance that this will happen ? One can say with certainty that this possibility exists less than ever. Because, on the ruins of old, liberal capitalism the possessing class is going to built a state organized capitalism.
The possessing class, all parliamentary parties and the trades unions movement shout from the rooftops that democracy and freedom have to be the foundations of the new world. But they do not conceal that a strong state power has to be asserted first. And this strong state power will not only rest on new military powers, stronger than they had been ever before in peace time, it will not reside either in the form of strong police armies, but rather in pacific forms. It will foremost be founded on state interference in the economic and in the whole of social life. Its peaceful means also comprise: the command of “public opinion” by means of the press and radio, and by controlling the whole organizational life of society. To this end a direct censorship is superfluous, because all organizations “synchronize” themselves in the establishment of a class peace, of the cooperation between capital and labour.
This construction of the new power of capital is only in its beginnings, its grip on the industries as a whole and on the working population is not yet firmly established. But the framework has been laid down. A whole series of official bureaus for the regulation of production, the distribution of raw materials, price control; import and export regulations, that of wage and working conditions, have to “order” society and to make it run according to plan. The leadership of all these bodies resides with the “professionals”, the leaders of the big joint-stock companies or their straw men, whereas in the nationalized companies the old leaders, who have practically proven to understand their profession of exploiters, remain in their functions.
The result of all this is that the control of social wealth, of the distribution of social poverty, concentrates in the hands of few. Here lies the almost unassailable power of the exploiting machine. Because governments can alternate, ministers can be changed and new members can arrive in parliaments. But this does not affect the dominance of the proper exploiting power in the least. And because the preservation of the big capitals is of “national interest” in particular, the synchronization of all social forces is the form in which the big capitalists bring the whole society under their rule. Here the small proprietors are being hard pressed and have to perish for the big ones to live. At the same time it is the rule of the big owners over the small ones.
This dominance of the means of production is only possible if the most important production factor, the working population, is dominated. It is only possible if the millions of workers and peasants are the willing instruments of the social leaders. On behalf of “order” it is necessary that they can prescribe the masses what and how many they can consume: that is how high the wages are allowed to be. Changing the wages overthrows the “plan”. Therefore freeze of wages. Also the workers can not be allowed to switch to another enterprise in order to obtain more fortunate working conditions. Hence company binding. Like in earlier times, when the farmers belonged to the land and an estate could only be simultaneously sold with the farmers and the cattle on it, the workers belong to the inventory of the enterprise. In short: the ordering of society by the possessing class and its state means a big decrease of individual freedom of the people in favour of the big capitals.
In this half-totalitarian society there can be no question of a struggle for working conditions by means of the trades unions. They have practically become state organs themselves and are becoming controllers of the execution of state arrangements. As such they obviously are now organs who break strikes whenever they arise from the working population itself. By this new situation the workers have been thrown into the greatest confusion. On the one hand they support the ordering of the industry and the synchronization of all organizations in the front of “general welfare”; they strengthen the chains of their own class. But on the other hand they deny this new order by the flaring up of autonomous movements.
This duplicity makes them powerless. The workers have no more a social goal and means of struggle of their own. The determined form of class unity, already achieved in the old capitalism, has collapsed. This means that they do not exist as a class any more. Of course they constitute a class for capital, but for itself they are no longer or not yet a class with goals and means of its own. The old has lost its strength. the new is not yet present, or only exists in its beginnings. The old working class is in decomposition; a new one begins to emerge.
This does not mean that there are no more struggles, but usually old means are still employed. Parliamentarism and trades unions tactics are far from being overcome. But in practice it will become ever more evident that this yields no results, and thereby it finally withers away. In the upcoming times the movements will often be offshoots of the old and insufficient. But at the same time they will contain many elements of the new growing as a class.
The content of the struggle is the constitution of workers’ power. How many times the workers have rushed against the leadership of their unions when they wanted to push through a strike! Sometimes the organizations agreed because otherwise the members would walk away. But then it was not a serious struggle for the leadership and it liquidated the movement as soon as possible. Often they refused to engage in such “adventures”. In this way the autonomous strike already became a generally recognized means of struggle of the workers. It should be noticed that a means of struggle emerged in these autonomous movements that had never been propagated by anyone in the “peaceful” economic struggle: the enterprise occupation or “Polish strike”. Previously there had been enterprise occupations as well, but in countries where a revolution was on hand. They were more or less regarded as a stake of the social revolution. As an economic means it was only applied in 1931 by the Polish miners, probably as a means of defence against the jobless, who could act as scabs. After Poland, the enterprise occupation was applied by the miners of Pécs in Hungary, by the workers of the railway workplaces in Romania and the metal workers of Madrid. In may 1935 we see the large enterprise occupations by the Belgian miners and in 1936 by those of France, in which hundreds of thousands were involved. In the winter of 1936-1937 the enterprises in America were occupied by some millions of workers. Finally, we want to stress the partial enterprise occupations by the French postal workers in August 1946.
The movements that occur under autonomous leadership, regardless whether they coincide with enterprise occupations, are of the greatest importance. Because here the old dividing lines that consist in the differences of “conviction” fall away against the common task. Parties, trades unions, churches splinter us as a class. But we can only struggle together, and therefore in the autonomous movement the class solidarity prevails over party or trades union discipline. Let all parties and other organizations make their propaganda, as they esteem necessary and useful; as workers we will listen carefully to what everyone has to say. But the leadership of the struggle, the force to take decisions, has to be with us as enterprise personnels together. So this is not with the “many millions of conscious communists”, as Gorter used to think as well.
What takes place in the autonomous movements and is scornfully called “wild strikes”, is the highest achievement that the working class has ever reached in the history of the oppressed masses. Hitherto the working working class has always been too weak in its autonomous understanding in order to take its destiny into its own hands. But now it appears that the masses demand their place as an autonomous force in the social arena. The population that strikes autonomously, indicates its own orientation of life, is master of its own forces. That is real democracy, workers’ democracy. Compared with this, how ridiculous appear the forms of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, in which the people have nothing else to do than to obey.
The Significance of the Mass Movements
The possessing class is immediately threatened in its existence by the autonomous class movement. Not yet by its power and size, for the time being, because the masses are still too much tied to the old forms of struggle. Only gradually they liberate themselves from party and trades unions politics. Therefore the possessing class can still easily oppress such movements or have them die out by means of parties and trades unions. For the bourgeoisie and the trades unions the danger does not reside in an immediate threat of their power. No, the danger of autonomous movements resides in the fact that they are hardly possible without breaking the limits of lawfulness. In Belgium a ban on strikes had been announced, but the strike took place nonetheless. One can ban meetings, but when a movement has reached a large size, meetings take place anyway. Papers can be banned, but they still appear. In those cases it is not the possessing class who determines what will happen, but it’s the population on strike who does. That is why this is workers’ democracy. There is however yet another reason why the possessing class hates the autonomous movements. That is because a large movement is almost impossible without attacking the property relations, or without the workers appropriating the right to dispose of the means of production. Enterprise occupation is an example of this. And the danger resides particularly in the fact that this does not follow from a conscious communist conviction but, more essential, constitutes measures of necessity.
In June 1934 at Amsterdam the dole of the jobless was cut. They went over to a particular form of strike, by refusing to go to the unemployment office. Albeit, initially, there were no disturbances the government announced a partial martial law, and nobody was allowed to stand still on the streets. Armoured vehicles and police cars raced through the streets, ready to shoot. To this the jobless replied by throwing up barricades, whereas the strikers pulled up the bridges over the canals in order to keep the armed force out of the city quarter as much as possible, and to assure the right to dispose of the streets for themselves. At the street corners lubricant oil was poured out in order to make the police cars slip.
Here the workers were in action, but this was not possible without breaking the limits of private property. Lubricant oil, spades and barbed wire were “confiscated” from neighbourhood shops.
Another example is the conflict in the Rotterdam seaport in June 1945. It was about a new regulation of working time and other working conditions. The government and the entrepreneurs refused to negotiate with the workers themselves, because they considered the official trades union movement as the appropriate organism. At the time only a hundred of dockworkers were organized in this movement. Of course the workers could have gone on strike, but they did not. They introduced the new working regulations by themselves. They designed a new daily schedule, introduced the 40 hours working week, and assigned twelve men in every working team instead of ten. Moreover they assigned a controller on all ships, in order to see to it that the regulations introduced by the workers were observed by everyone.
In practice this meant that the dockworkers had taken the legislative, the executive and the controlling powers, as far as concerns the port, into their own hands. No surprise that the newspapers alarmingly spoke about a “revolution” in the port of Rotterdam. Radio, government, press, entrepreneurs and trades unions started a campaign of slander against the dockworkers, in order to isolate them from the rest of the population. An extension of this movement to other enterprises, in order to support the dockworkers, remained absent, in part as a consequence of this campaign. Some days later the entrepreneurs shut down the port and nobody could go to work any more. In this way the conflict ended with a defeat of the workers, because they had to return to work under the old conditions.
Here it is essential that a simple struggle about working conditions is directing itself against the state and that from this a struggle about the right to dispose of the means of production is developing. A struggle that simple and with a limited aim was waged with means that previously would only have been applied in a revolution.
Finally one more example out of many. The postal strike in France at the end of July 1946.
The trades union of the postal workers had decided an eight hours’ protest strike in order to keep the discontent of its members within organized limits. However, the postal workers considered a strike with a duration fixed in advance inefficient and, against the will of their board, they organized a strike of unlimited duration. They put the telephony and telegraphy apparatus to their service. In addition they decided who could and who could not use the telephone during the strike. In this way the service could continue for the Peace Conference that was just taking place at the time, for medicines, pharmacists, mid-wives and social services. In the meantime the bureau of their “own” trades union was cut off from telephonic communications. So this movement was simultaneously a partial enterprise occupation.
For us it is important that, in principle, a regulation of the labour process was effected by the implicated workers themselves. And that this was not a consequence of the revolutionary disposition of the postal workers, but consisted of simple measures of the modern class struggle. It had nothing to do with revolution or so.
However limited, clumsy and unripe these movements were, one can already recognize the most important characters of future mass movements. They point towards the taking command of the production apparatus by the workers themselves. If this kind of movements grows in size in the future, inevitably ever larger parts of the social production apparatus will fall under workers’ management. It becomes inevitable to confiscate means of transport, printing businesses, paper stocks. And if the movement has a longer duration, the question of food supply will have to be resolved in such an area. Here and there the enterprises will not be halted, but will be kept running for the strikers, like in Asturias in 1934, or in the Ruhr area in 1920.
In this way the workers are confronted with new questions every time. And within the framework of the struggle an image of the new social order emerges. That is the spectre of the possessing class and its trades unions. However, it does not imply that a new mode of production by workers’ management is slowly being carried through. The organization as a council movement emerges in the struggle, but also disappears after every struggle. From the latter probably only revolutionary nuclei will remain. But what will take root as well is the experience , which cannot be expressed by measure and numbers. In the long run the new methods of struggle are applied automatically, without extensive discussions on forehand. The extension of a movement, the consulting within the enterprise, the defensive preventions regarding the state, the occupation of the necessary enterprises then become self evident. By experience they become widely accepted.
Undoubtedly we will go through very many mass movements that come to a dead end. But these do not need to be veritable defeats. Because through the impotence of a mass movement that still has to find its way, the elements of future force always become visible.
The organization of the class forces under autonomous leadership is the veritable difficulty of the maturation process. And this organization is nothing but the carrying through of practical measures in the struggle. That is why in every struggle the organization of the class does not advance further than is required by it. The control of the class forces, that is their organization, is the pivot of the whole liberation struggle. We can only apply our class forces consciously to the extent in which we are able to crystallize them in the workers’ councils. That is why the growth of the mass movement into a council movement is the measure indicating the degree of mastery of our class forces.
For the most important part power rests upon organization. This applies to the possessing class and to the working population as well. State power resides with a relatively small number of people, tied together by a rigid organization. Should this organization be broken by insubordination of its parts, or by the loss of means of connection between those parts, this state power is decomposing.
But the same applies to the working population. The latter has to bring about the decomposition of the state organization, or to paralyse it, and has to strengthen its own power of organization. The possessing class tries to hinder the organization of the masses by forbidding strikes, by state of emergency, press censorship and the interdiction of meetings. It is a question of organized power against organized power. But eventually the working population will have to win this, if it wants to obtain the management of the means of production. In this way the freedom of the working population resides in the political-economic command of society by means of the organization of the council system.
After we have seen emerge the political-economic formation of power by the working population from the mass movement, the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat is being put in the correct perspective. It is clear that the solution of the political-economic questions can only reside with the enterprise personnels and their workers’ councils. Everyone who participates in the working process, manual worker or intellectual, thereby has a voice in the organization of social life. But who does not participate does not have a say in the matter. This is not democratic in a bourgeois sense, in which those who live as social parasites play such a big role. But in reality in the council system resides the highest form of democracy. Does not democracy mean that the people decide about their fate ?
Attributing the designation of proletarian dictatorship to this all-sided mastery of social life by the working population does not seem functional to us. This is not because it would be incorrect, but because it does not express the essence of the exercise of power, one that is the highest form of democracy, yes which even veils it. By contrast, under cover of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” several parties can carry through a party dictatorship over the working population. This dictatorship by a party is justified with the weakness of the working class. Because the working class under capitalism can never attain the spiritual maturity to solve all social problems by itself, the argument goes, the party has to take over the proper tasks of the workers. As we have seen in the discussion of the German council movement, influenced by the Russian Revolution even the A.A.U.D. and the K.A.P.D. were not free from this conception. It has to be remarked that capitalism in Western Europe and North America is so strong that it cannot be brought down by a weak working class. Once the latter has become strong enough to become the political and economic power in society by its council movement, it can only keep this power by carrying through new principles for the relations between the people in industry. However, if a party should come to power, this expresses by itself that the latter controls political and social life, and by consequence the people cannot regulate their relations among themselves. Therefore such a party dictatorship cannot produce anything else than a new bureaucracy that controls the life of the people. The latter becomes a new dominant class.
The dictatorship of the proletariat is often associated with armed violence. and it is certain that this will play a role because no dominant class voluntarily resigns from its exploiting position. It is however equally certain that the power of the working class can never rest on armed violence. In this field the bourgeoisie is the strongest, and that is why it tries to transpose every struggle to this terrain. The power of the workers rests, in the first place, on the control of the means of labour and the produced goods. The application of this power is the most important weapon of the workers in their struggle for the perpetual control of society. We will return to this as well in the following discussion.
At present, influenced by the Russian Revolution, the abolition of the freedom of press and of the right to associate and assemble are demanded as dictatorship of the proletariat as well, as was and is the case in Russia and in national-socialist Germany. The abolition of these rights has to be regarded as one of the heaviest blows that can hit a working class in its struggle. Because notably in the period of revolution an all-sided orientation for the working population is necessary. Everywhere new questions arise from the fermenting life and the workers’ population can only solve these if everyone can have his voice heard. The growth of new life from inside by participation of all workers from the cities and the country side, cannot effectuate itself in the straight-jacket of a single party, under abolition of freedom of press and so forth. Where these freedoms are abolished, even presumably “to protect workers against bad influences”, this can only have as a consequence that a party, or several parties, take power for themselves and carry through a dictatorship over the population.
The press and the propaganda of the diverse parties and trades unions continuously speak of “broadening democracy”. That is a broadening and a deepening of the influence of the workers’ masses on the course of social life. But in reality the course of society is put into an ever decreasing number of hands (in government and big companies’ offices). The influence of the population becomes less than it has ever been.
In this propaganda the ever more invasive organization of life is pointed out. And indeed, this is one of the most important phenomena of the present times. It is the organization of the forces to have them working as one whole. It is the organization of spiritual life by “synchronized” press, radio, trades unions and parliamentary parties. The state constitutes the driving force behind this. In everything we do and want we are confronted with the paragraphs of the laws of the state and the organizations. The state dominates our lives from the cradle to the grave. What does that mean to everyone of us ?
That he is impotent with regards to social life. Everyone feels without significance. He cannot act because action is being taken on his behalf. With us, decisions are taken without us and about us. Everything that happens occurs to us as something inevitable. That is why the worker cannot feel any responsibility towards this society. He is not responsible for the course of things. He has nothing to want, every will of his own bounces off against the wall of organizations that has been erected everywhere around him.
Moreover, society is incomprehensible to him. Suddenly occurring crises and wars flagellate the world, and their causes are to a certain degree appreciated, but seldom are consciously thought through. In any case they seem to originate independently from the will of the people. By this uncertainty he also feels uncertain in judging social phenomena. He feels on dangerous ground and there can be no question of a self-conscious, profoundly reflected judgement. He does know that things do not go like he would like them to, but on this foundation no firm conceptions about the use or disadvantage of many social institutions originate. That is why he lacks certainty about what is right and what is wrong as well. That is why no proper ideals come forth, a source of strength from which he could live. There is still nothing that he properly wants and could struggle for.
On the whole the image arises of the large masses or the “neutral masses”, to whom everything is six of one and half a dozen of the other. The expression “the large masses” already designates uniformity, like the one we find in “mass manufacturing”, in which one piece resembles another as well. These masses are not the product of some innate inability or inferiority, but are a social phenomenon. Its causes lie partly in the wall of organization that we are confronted with. We do not organize by ourselves, but we are organized. Organization means here that others decide and act in our place. In another part its causes lie in the incomprehensibility of society, that weakens the certainty of judgement and is presently shaking fixed value judgements about right and wrong. The latter grows out from the feeling of impotence and insignificance and results in the lack of a proud sense of personality; which is the assurance to be personally significant in the social process at large. Thereby the will, the acts, the thoughts and feelings orientate themselves much more towards the old, towards truths from long gone times.
Looking at the social origin of the “large masses” it is striking that capitalism stands in the way of a real development of humanity. In the struggle against capitalism the stakes are not that we have to work too much hours, or do not earn enough, or that the foundation of our existence has become too insecure, even not that a thin layer of parasites usurps social wealth. The struggle against capitalism is being waged in the first place because it does not want, nor is able, to employ the most important of all productive forces - the human spirit. Labour productivity would increase by leaps if the sense of responsibility of the working population would be indeed be inserted as a link in the chain. But this is tied to conditions that capitalism cannot satisfy: the sense of responsibility is an aspect of conscious being and of personality. The sense of responsibility for the conduct of the social household - which means: for economic life - has as a precondition that both a real participation in the disposition of all matters of work and a real participation in the whole of social economy exist.
To occupy oneself with economic life and interfere in it is not a personal affair. No one brings about something on his own. Social functions can only be exercised in a collective way. The constitution of a will on the economic and political terrain can only take place collectively. That is why the stakes are not about organizing the masses, but about the masses organizing themselves. Only then the river bed originates in which our activity can flow out, the trajectory on which it can discharge itself and by which we can give a direction to our lives. Only then the sense of responsibility is born that flows out in a broad sens of community. Then the community becomes our guideline, and dominates our thoughts and acts. This means: it orientates our emotional life. The “mass human”, the image of political and social ignorance, because everything was uncertain, has disappeared, and in its place has stepped the free man, who has learned to judge by himself and thereby is able to fulfil his task in society in a self-conscious way. He no longer feels impotent and insignificant, because hence he knows himself to be a part of the whole, a bearer of the whole, because he is responsible for his acts. The struggle for an autonomously acting working class by means of the connected enterprise personnels and workers’ councils, that is the struggle for a real workers’ democracy, surpasses in its goals the daily needs by far.
We struggle in the form of the united enterprise personnels and workers’ councils because there are no alternatives left. Every other force has revealed itself too weak. In this struggle the “mass human” disappears, to the extent in which we can direct our lives through the workers’ councils.
In the enterprise meetings and the workers’ councils we learn to think, to judge, and to act. There we learn to give a new content to our emotional life. Here we learn to consciously see the world that surrounds us and to consciously interfere in it. In the first place we learn a sense of responsibility for the struggle, that is for our struggling community; for our class. And to the extent that the responsibility for the class takes root, the responsibility for the whole of social life emerges. Here we strip off the skin of the capitalist working animal, that has to obey like a dog and does not need to think further than a dog. Here we become free men with a proud sense of personality, which then however is the expression of a new sense of community.
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Compiled by Vico, 25 February 2016