The Meaning of Workers' Councils in the 21st Century

Workers’ councils have a prominent place in our agitation. Recently we have received a number of questions regarding what we mean by workers’ councils, what we think is the relationship between political organisations and workers’ councils, and what might workers’ councils look like today. Our answers to these questions are, as always, informed by the experience of the class struggles of the past.

From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution

When the movement of the working class first appeared on the historical arena in the early 19th Century, it inevitably took over a lot of the terminology of previous generations. The legacy of world-shaping events like the English, American or French revolutions weighed particularly heavily. Workers and revolutionaries of all stripes would attempt to organise themselves into various “clubs”, “societies”, “committees”, “associations”, “parties”, “unions”, and indeed “communes” and “councils”. That terminology was still fairly loose, but already denoting the need for some kind of independent organisation. In the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels wrote:

workers, and above all the [Communist] League, must work for the creation of an independent organisation of the workers’ party, both secret and open … the League must aim to make every one of its communes a centre and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence. … [Workers] must establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments, either in the form of local executive committees and councils or through workers’ clubs or committees, so that the bourgeois-democratic governments not only immediately lose the support of the workers but find themselves from the very beginning supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers.

Marx and Engels, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, 1850

Here, “committees”, “councils” and “clubs” are all used almost interchangeably, but the message is clear: whatever they are called, the working class needs organisations “free from bourgeois influence”. With the growth of the workers’ movement, some of these terms began to gradually gain new, or more particular, meanings. By the time the International Workingmen’s Association (aka the First International) was formed in 1864, a distinction already began to emerge between economic and political struggles. On the one hand, the formalisation of trade unions into organs of mediation between labour and capital; on the other, the transformation of political organisations into parliamentary parties. The First International attempted to breach that gap, but it could never resolve the contradiction between the economic and political that was being spurred by the development of capitalism itself. The solution to the question was posed by the class struggle.

In March 1871, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, workers in Paris rose up against their ruling class, and in the process created a short-lived revolutionary government: the Paris Commune, or more precisely the communal council, the conseil communal as it was known in French. After the Central Committee of the National Guard, composed of delegates from revolutionary battalions, seized power, it announced elections to the communal council. 275,000 out of 485,000 Parisians eligible to vote took part in that election. The powers-that-be in Versailles organised a massive abstention campaign, so the electorate inevitably came mainly from working class neighbourhoods supportive of the insurrection. Even if only a minority of those elected to the council were of working class origin themselves, the majority of the decrees that were passed aimed at addressing the problems facing the Parisian proletariat. The Paris Commune, composed of deputies subject to recall, exercising both executive and legislative powers, was what we might call a proto-workers’ council. At the time Marx considered it the:

political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour … a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.

Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871

Ultimately, this brief experiment in working class democracy was violently suppressed in a matter of weeks. Yet despite all its limitations, it left behind a number of lessons on what the seizure of power by the working class might look like in practice.

The Dress Rehearsal of the Russian Revolution

Famously the workers’ councils, or soviets as they were known in Russian, first emerged in the course of the 1905 revolution. From the 1870s onwards, a workers’ movement was growing within the Russian Empire. In the absence of legal rights and faced with the repressive Tsarist regime, the movement mainly took the form of spontaneous industrial actions encouraged by socialist groups and sustained by strike committees and mutual aid societies. Workers quickly recognised the need for unity and solidarity in their fight against the employers, and would elect their own delegates to present their demands. The Russo-Japanese War which broke out in 1904 further intensified social tensions, and when a peaceful procession of workers led by Father Gapon, an Orthodox priest and Okhrana informant, was fired upon by soldiers of the Tsar, a wave of intense class struggle erupted across the Empire. This mass strike was widely commented on by socialists, most famously by Rosa Luxemburg, but what escaped the notice of many at the time was the significance of the workers’ councils. Trotsky, having had first hand experience of being a delegate on the St Petersburg Soviet, could observe that:

The Soviet was the axis of all events, every thread ran towards it, every call to action emanated from it. What was the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies? The Soviet came into being as a response to an objective need – a need born of the course of events. It was an organisation which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organisational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self control – and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.

Trotsky, Our Revolution, 1907

The first soviet is often said to have emerged in the Bolshevik stronghold of Ivanovo-Voznesensk in May 1905 during a strike of 40,000 workers. Ironically, it was a factory inspector who suggested workers should elect delegates at their workplaces to make negotiations easier. The next day 110 deputies were chosen. The soviet was essentially a strike committee, not for an individual factory but for a whole city. It existed until July 1905 and it managed to keep the strike going despite military repressions, riots and exhaustion. The same month that the Ivanovo-Voznesensk soviet dissolved, another soviet was formed in the neighbouring city of Kostroma, but it only lasted a few weeks. However, most significant in unifying the strike movement was the emergence of the soviet in the capital itself, St. Petersburg, in October 1905. By its third meeting, it consisted of 226 delegates from 96 workplaces, representatives from newly formed trade unions and, in advisory roles, representatives from the socialist parties (Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and Socialist-Revolutionaries). It soon published its own paper and became a beacon for workers in other areas of the Russian Empire to create their own soviets. The 1905 revolution was defeated, in some areas by exhaustion, in others by repression, but it provided workers with much needed experience for the next clash.

It should be remembered that the workers’ councils were not the only bodies thrown up by that revolution. Simultaneously, the membership of revolutionary parties swelled, and all kinds of cooperatives, trade unions and cultural societies were set up. A true revolutionary process will always see workers experiment with reorganising their everyday lives by means of free association. The question is, however, what organisation is best suited for the exercise of power by the class at large.

The Working Class Takes Power

The First World War opened a new era in history. Although at first met with patriotic fervour, the harsh realities of imperialist conflict soon hit home. In the Russian Empire the working class finally responded with demonstrations, strikes and mutinies. The will to form soviets was there once again, and workers began electing strike committees. However, the bourgeoisie was prepared to limit the scope of the revolution from the outset. In February 1917, behind the backs of the workers, a Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was formed in the Tauride Palace by politicians of the Duma. Faced with the collapse of Tsarism, they intended to transform Russia into a democratic parliamentary republic. However, the story of the 1917 revolution is how instead the workers transformed the Petrograd Soviet into an organ for the exercise of their own power, by filling it with their own delegates and creating more soviets, of workers, soldiers and peasants, across all of the Russian Empire.

It was not just the bourgeoisie who had learned the lessons of 1905. When soviets first emerged, revolutionaries like Lenin were already reflecting on what that meant:

Soviet of Workers’ Deputies or the Party? I think that it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the Party. … I think it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party. … The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies came into being through the general strike, in connection with the strike, and for its aims. Who led the strike and brought it to a victorious close? The whole proletariat, which includes non-Social-Democrats—fortunately a minority. … I may be wrong, but I believe (on the strength of the incomplete and only “paper” information at my disposal) that politically the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government.

Lenin, Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, 1905

Later, in his preparatory notes to State and Revolution written while still in Switzerland, Lenin, echoing Marx, came to the following conclusion:

replacement of the old ("ready-made") state machine and parliaments by Soviets of Workers' Deputies and their trustees. Therein lies the essence!!

Lenin, Marxism on the State, 1917

Lenin fought for this programme among the Bolsheviks, and soon the Bolsheviks were fighting for this programme within the soviets. The Bolsheviks took part in the setting up of soviets, they insisted on the right of recall to be introduced, they brought the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” to the streets. By October 1917, that programme gained the approval of a majority of revolutionary workers, and the provisional government, hitherto supported by the Petrograd Soviet, was brought down by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet itself.

The seizure of power by the soviets, ratified by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, opened up new problems. If in the first six months following October the soviet principle was extended to all areas of life, in the course of the civil war, during which the former ruling class attempted to regain power with the help of outside military intervention, the soviets were gradually hollowed out. Objective factors, such as isolation, war, famine and disease, were behind this but subjective factors did not help matters: the creation of a Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) above the Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) of the soviets, the Left-SRs walking out of the Sovnarkom leaving behind a one party government, the gerrymandering of elections by the Communist Party, etc. We have written extensively about this process elsewhere. Although on paper Soviet Russia, which in the course of the counter-revolution became the USSR, was a “soviet republic” until 1991, the soviets were already empty shells by 1921. Despite the valiant efforts of those both within and outside the Communist Party to change course, the 1917 revolution was defeated by gradual degeneration with Stalin providing the coup de grace.

Workers’ Councils and Revolutionaries Today

Based on the experience of the past briefly outlined above, if we were to provide a brief definition of workers’ councils now, we could say they are bodies created by workers in the course of the class struggle which:

  • involve workers beyond this or that factory or sector;
  • organise according to principles of delegation and recall;
  • aim at the unification of the movement towards common goals;
  • breach the separation between economic and political struggle;
  • are suited to the exercise of power by the working class at large.

Of course such neat definitions can never quite fully describe reality. In fact, neither the commune nor the soviets met these criteria completely at all times. Let alone the other lesser known examples of similar such bodies throughout history, such as:

  • workers’ councils in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Finland, Norway, etc. (1918-9)
  • factory councils in Italy (1919-20)
  • communes and strike committees in China (1925-7)
  • sugar-mill soviets in Cuba (1933)
  • urban and rural collectives in Spain (1936-7)
  • workers’ councils in Vietnam, Czechoslovakia and Poland (1944-7)
  • workers’ councils in Hungary and Poland (1956)
  • strike committees and factory councils in France, Italy and Czechoslovakia (1968-9)
  • cordones in Chile (1972-3)
  • strike committees in Portugal and Argentina (1974-6)
  • shuras in Iran (1978-9)
  • inter-factory strike committees in Poland (1980-1)
  • assemblies in Argentina (2001)
  • organising councils in Iran (2021)

These examples are not by any means exhaustive, and not all of them were what we would deem to be actual workers’ councils (even if they took that name), but they all demonstrate that at high points of the class struggle workers create their own class-wide organs to carry the struggle forward. Revolutionaries can aid and encourage this process, but are not necessarily needed for it. However, without the intervention of revolutionaries in such class-wide organs, it is inevitable that other political forces will fill the vacuum and dominate, sabotage and neutralise them – e.g. social-democracy in Germany (1918), Stalinism in Vietnam, Czechoslovakia and Poland (1944-7), or even the religious right as in Iran (1978-9) and Poland (1980-1).

Our political tendency descends directly from the Communist Left which from the 1920s onward attempted to resist the tide of counter-revolution. That continuity was upheld for us by those expelled from the Communist Party of Italy, who then regrouped in the Internationalist Communist Party during the Second World War. There is, however, no common understanding of the role of workers’ councils across the wider Communist Left. Some, like the councilists who emerged from the remnants of the Communist Workers' Party of Germany, having seen how the Communist Party in Russia created a party dictatorship and the Social Democratic Party in Germany subordinated the councils to the capitalist state, came to the conclusion that workers’ councils have to be free from the influence of political parties. This view also finds its adherents among certain anarchists today. Others, like the Bordigists who split from the Internationalist Communist Party in 1952, have argued against working class democracy altogether, in favour of a proletarian state animated by a single party which will never give up power. Others still, like the ICC which has its origins in a group in France that refused to join the Internationalist Communist Party in 1945, think that during the period of transition alongside and separate from the workers' councils there will have to exist some other repressive body.

For us, the dictatorship of the proletariat, if it is to mean anything, implies the exclusive rule of workers’ councils following a successful revolution. It is not the rule of one revolutionary organisation or party. In fact, even the automatic allocation of seats to parties, as we saw in the councils in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918, was problematic. Revolutionaries being consciously delegated by other workers to class-wide organs will be a reflection of the adoption of the communist programme by the class. In such circumstances, they will need to work to fulfil the mandate on which they were delegated: the communist programme. However, it may be the case that the revolutionary organisation will have a majority on the councils at one point, and a minority at another. The working class has to always have the ability to change the composition of whatever class-wide organs it brings to life. It may be that the mood among the class shifts away from a revolutionary course, meaning revolutionaries lose their mandate. If in such a situation the revolutionary organisation clings on to power at all costs, to the point of acting actively against the councils or substituting itself for the councils, it will contribute to the process of counter-revolution all the same. As our predecessors put it,

At no time and for no reason does the proletariat abandon its combative role. It does not delegate to others its historical mission, and it does not give power away to anyone, not even to its political party.

Political Platform of the Internationalist Communist Party, 1952

For us, the period of transition is not some separate stage but a process of dismantling capitalist social relations which starts immediately with the establishment of the rule of workers’ councils and ends with the final disappearance of classes. The success of that process is ultimately premised on the existence of self-initiative and self-organisation among millions of workers as expressed by the creative activity of workers’ councils (and countless other forms of association that the councils will also oversee). At the same time, the revolutionary organisation cannot dissolve itself in the councils; its role until the final abolition of classes remains helping the spread of the revolution worldwide and working towards the adoption of communist measures. The formation of class-wide organs is only the beginning of the struggle to eliminate capitalist ideas and practices from the working class. The revolutionary minority of internationalists will have to oppose all reformist and conformist trends which attempt to intrude on the attempt to build a new society. Once classes dissolve into humanity itself, the workers’ councils will “lose their political character and will be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society.” (Engels, 1872). Any repressive, or statist, functions that the workers’ councils choose to adopt to prevent the former ruling class from coming back to power will, at that point, become obsolete.

The workers’ councils are the historically discovered form which allows everyone to play an active part in decision-making through the mechanism of recall. Underpinning this is the idea that communism/socialism is not just another economic system dominated by a political elite but a society which is fundamentally different in every way from previous societies dominated by class divisions. Under communism/socialism there will still be debates about how to tackle issues (the environment for starters) but these will be non-antagonistic in the sense that differences of opinion will not express different class positions but will instead use what we know (science) to decide what is the best option in every case. The beauty of the recall system is that decisions can be revisited if the consequences of earlier decisions have to be addressed in a different way. In the council system decisions will not be imposed on any locality but grow first of all from the basic needs of localities. And as the Russian Revolution showed, councils will only be the final decision making place whilst many other activities will be carried out via the likes of cooperatives and local committees in production units and neighbourhoods.

If the working class takes up the struggle once again, and it will have to if there is to be a planet left to live on, class-wide organs will emerge as a result. These might initially arise out of strike committees, mass assemblies or neighbourhood associations, but they are more than that, they are the social and political mainspring of the new world. It may be that the workers’ councils of the future will go under different names. It is not for revolutionaries to come up with blueprints for what will be decided by the needs of the class struggle. However, revolutionaries will have to be able to ascertain the class content of any bodies which do arise, and actively intervene in them to put forward the communist programme: for the overthrow of capitalist rule, for the rule of workers’ councils, for the transformation towards a classless society. In short, both workers’ councils and revolutionary organisation are necessary, each with a role to play in the process of overcoming the capitalist mode of production.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
September 2022

Some Further Reading:

Monday, September 12, 2022