Wanted: Council Communism, Dead or Alive   

Starting from the proposition that council communism is dead, the author asks whether it can and should be revived. To this end, he examines the relationship between organizations and programs of the workers' movement and changes in capitalism and class struggle. The weakness of the present small council communist milieu (especially in the face of the current imperialist war) and the theoretical rigidity and sectarian practices of the groups of the Italian Left are both seen as manifestations of the weakness of the workers' struggle. Starting from the current low level of workers' struggle, he formulates immediate tasks for an organized activity based on programmatic positions. In the course of discussion and cooperation with the other proletarian internationalist groups, differences of views are inevitable, both on questions brought to clarity by history and questions whose solution will be clear only when the proletarian equals or even exceeds 1917-1923.

Council communism and its disappearance

Council communism, in the broader sense, is a political tendency that originates in the "Kommunistische Arbeiter Partei Deutschlands" (KAPD). At its foundation in 1920, the KAPD regrouped more members than the KPD. More imported than its numbers, the KAPD continued to fight for revolution with 'new tactics' of mass organization, tactics foreseen by Pannekoek in 1914 as properly adapted to the period of imperialism. These 'new tactics' appeared as the workers' councils which sprung up in the Russian, German and Hungarian Revolutions. These councils were embraced by Lenin to destroy the bourgeois state, and in doing so gained world popularity. However, once in governmental power, the Bolsheviks adopted a state-capitalist program, submitting the Councils to the state. The CPR, with its revolutionary prestige, used the Communist International for the interests of Russian foreign policy. Lenin, in his pamphlet on Left Communism, condemned the KAPD, the Italian communists led by Bordiga, and the Left Communists in Great Britain (Sylvia Pankhurst) that criticized the counterrevolutionary course of the Comintern.

Currently, no organizations find their origin in the KAPD-AAUD. Council communism is also dead in theoretical respect. At most, individuals and small groups base their current positions on only a few positions supported by the offspring of the  KAPD including: 

Most of the few groups that have appeared since the year 2000 referred to some positions of the four currents listed above, and managed to keep themselves alive only briefly. The main reason is they proved unable to play their role in the class struggle? They failed to analyze actual class struggle and to present their internationalist positions. Those inspired by the anti-party positions of Otto Rühle outright refuse to 'intervene' in class struggle. For the recent group Council Communist Collective, with its website www.councilist.org, the author's advice still applies: fulfill your function in the working-class struggle, or disappear as an expression of proletarian consciousness. It is in all modesty that the author of this text (the I-form is not permitted on these pages) expresses this truth; he is active only as a rather isolated individual, not organized — not by principle, but confronted with the extreme dispersion and sectarianism of the present revolutionaries. 

Other present groups rely only partly on what they call the German-Dutch Communist Left. In addition, these organizations often base themselves on the Italian Communist Left. The latter do display a certain organizational continuity, but also fragmentation and divergence of views. It is good to take a step back to understand what organizational and theoretical death, continuity, fragmentation, and divergence can mean.

Breaks in workers' movement

Following a quote from Marx, we consider the labor movement "a real movement" stimulated by the development of capitalism and class struggle; it is the expression of the working class's immediate and historical interests. This movement historically was not continuous, but showed significant breaks in its organizational forms and programmatic views in response to changes in capitalism. Marx and Engels reflected this in their active participation in organizations such as the League of Communists, the First International, and the Second International, later dissolving the former two organizations. Anton Pannekoek experienced several of these ruptures in his lifetime. He broke with the Second and the Third Internationals and — more than other revolutionaries — in numerous analyses, he reflected on the changes in the class struggle with which the emergence of these organizations and their demise were associated:

To understand the significance of council communism for the present and future workers' movement, we focus on the period after WW2. Indeed, this is when organized council communism disappeared, just as the Italian Left splintered during that period, and its views began to show signs of rigidity. Why did this happen?

The expectation that at the end or after WW2, revolutionary workers' struggle would revive, did not materialize. A proletarian revolution was not on the agenda of history. In WW2, Left Communist groups had stuck to the revolutionary positions in WW1, notably proletarian internationalism, refusing to support all imperialisms, including that of capitalist Russia, and bringing forward the alternative of workers' struggle against all national capitals to end the war. After WW2, these groups had to maintain their internationalist positions, plus their specific lessons of the revolutions of the beginning of the 20th century and the international counterrevolution that followed. And at the same time, they had to analyze actuality as to remain present in the proletarian struggle, be it at a lower level.

A short overview. WW2, after a period of instability, was followed by a reconstruction period, the cold war between the Russian and the U.S. imperialist blocs, fought through national "liberation" wars outside of Europe and North America. In the 1960s and 1970s, a limited resurgence of radical workers' struggles took place in Western countries, which capital ended through the "neoliberal" attacks on the (social) wage and amongst other the relocation of industry to Asia. The latter became possible mainly because China opened to foreign capital after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. In the 2020s, we saw the Covid lockdowns, environmental disaster  and the Russo-Ukrainian war in preparation for a large-scale confrontation between the USA and China.

Current groups referring to the Italian Left have analyzed the changes in capitalism and class struggle since World War II. These analyses are admittedly different and, at points, contradictory to each other and even to reality (especially the various theories of the decline of capitalism since WW1). But at least the most influential groups (ICT, ICC, the ICPs of Florence, Milan, and "le prolétaire") were able to recognize the war in Ukraine as an inter-imperialist war. They took a proletarian internationalist position as they did in World War II. Of the groups and individuals who refer to council communism, the picture is very diverse. Of the group Council Communist Collective (CCC), no position on the war is known, let alone an analysis of the period from 1945 to the present. What CCC presents as an "Introduction" is, at best, an introduction to the basic positions of a discussion group that has not yet delimited itself from the ideologies of the left wing of the bourgeoisie. 

The theoretical weakness characteristic of the present small council communist milieu finds its opposite in the theoretical rigidity and sectarian practices of the groups of the Italian Left. 

The fossilization of minority organizations and their sectarian refusal to discuss and cooperate where needed and possible is the counterpart of their will to maintain lessons that their lineage learned from specific and limited proletarian experiences in Italy, in Germany or Spain. Or on what they only believe to be the lessons, a belief that may be based on false premises. Who will say? Only a radical discussion and future historical experience at a higher level than that of 1917-1923 will tell. 

The same is true for positions the Comintern has taken at specific congresses. The break of the Comintern with Social democrat tactics has been incomplete, partly by an inevitable delay of theory to the reality of imperialism, partly under the influence of the Russian party, becoming a governmental party and expressing the interests of national capital. 

In discussions within the Communist Left, council communism can take positions that originate from the debate on the mass strike, the 'new tactics' proposed by Pannekoek in WW1, and his critique of all kinds of theories of the decline of capitalism. The KAPD took a more radical position in the Comintern and therefore was kicked out, while Bordiga remained to the point that he was tolerated to confront Stalin in its plenum. The Italian Left was confronted with an early victory of fascism in Italy. In Germany, the bourgeoisie could install Hitler in 1933 only after having physically defeated its stronger proletariat (1923) and having inflicted a more profound ideological defeat by the 'anti-fascist' front with counterrevolutionary bourgeois democratic forces and a KPD that competed with the NDSAP in German nationalism.

Discussion and cooperation between groups of the International Communist Left

A fundamental discussion on the different positions taken and lessons learned by the Dutch-German Communist Left and the Italian Communist Left should take into consideration their historical and regional differences, roughly described above. A second precondition for clarification is the understanding that not all disagreements can be solved in theory and that remaining questions will have to stay open till history decides, that is when the proletarian struggle will rise again into a new wave at the same level or higher than that in 1917-1923.

In this sense, council communists and supporters of the Italian Left have to claim the right and the task to defend their positions in a larger organization, finally, in one World Communist Party. If not possible, they should remain apart, leading ultimately to several Parties. Of course, the first possibility is the most desirable, and communists should promote it to the max. However, presently, there are no signs within the groups that refer to all kinds of Left Communism that they are open for discussion and cooperation. For an earlier effort, see International Conferences of the Communist Left: 1977-1980. Sectarianism will probably be overcome only under the pressure of massive class struggle in an unpredictable far future.

From the history of the International Communist Left, we can deduce the following priorities:

More specifically, for a discussion group like CCC, the way to handle the five subjects above is to study the positions of the historical Communist Left as a whole. These theoretical positions should be discussed in light of past and present class struggle to avoid academism. 

Its results should be published and, where possible, brought forward understandably in workers' struggle.

Discussion and cooperation with the other proletarian internationalist groups is a matter of course. Among the inevitable differences of opinion, it is essential to distinguish between questions that history has brought to clarity and questions whose solution will be clear only when the proletarian struggle shows a revival on a level that equals or even exceeds 1917-1923. 

Council communism should revive for the international working class as part of an effort to test against class struggle the historical lessons of the period 1917-1923.

Fredo Corvo