Role of Workers' Councils in Socialist Revolution

Here is my presentation for the discussion with the SPGB on

The Role of Workers’ Councils in Socialist Revolution

Unlike the SPGB, the MDF is not a formal organisation with a formal platform nor indeed formal members

The Midlands Discussion Forum is a discussion circle. We meet and discuss with others in the working class movement – for us that is how to understand both our own and others’ arguments more clearly. But not having a platform means that whilst I am here as a participant of the MDF, what I say is my opinion as a left communist not the mdf’s. In volunteering for this task, I do not pretend to be an expert in Workers Councils or the Russian Revolution or even the SPGB but I volunteered for this task to improve my understanding of workers councils as well as the SPGB – hopefully SPGB members too

The SPGB is unlike the LP and the Stalinists and Trotskyists, it believes genuinely in the overthrow of capitalism by the working class. socialism as a classless society, it does not support reforms and does not turn nationalist and support the ruling class in the event of imperialist wars. These are very important points of agreement and from my perspective mean this is a discussion within the workers movement – not just between non-market socialists

We nevertheless have sharply different views on the path to socialism which will no doubt come out in the discussion – such differences are clearly an important topic that raises key issues for clarification - but can only be decided in future events. I will not focus on the SPGB’s view of parliament. And in terms of councils, I have rather focussed on the aspect of councils as organs of class struggle because there is far more experience of this than councils as organs of administration in a global socialist society. Something again that remains for clarification in future.

The first appearances of Workers’ Councils were in Russia in 1905 as a revolutionary situation was opening up across the capitalism world. It is no accident that this is also the period which saw the formation of the SPGB when it split from reformists. In Russia, there was a strong concentrated working class suffering under a brutal and out of date regime which used foreign capital to support itself. Called Absolutism, it violently resisted encroachments from bourgeois society to change - and the councils emerge from 1903 onwards when the confrontation was become ever deeper and greatly politicised. The strikes were certainly based on everyday economic struggles but became political as they were thwarted by an aggressive and untrustworthy ruling class.

There was no, one specific point of origin, but lessons were being learnt in struggle and the councils emerged as workers needed to join up together to fight united battles and, critically, to raise generalised political demands.

Trotsky in his history of 1905 describes how the structures grew out the workers struggles with the state. Based simply on the need for assembly meetings in the workplace, prolonged struggle led to the formation of factory committees to represent the assemblies’ decisions. Prolonged struggle also generated the emergence of what came to be called soviets (councils in English), Ultimately as the conflicts became broader and more political, these works assemblies became formalised and began to elect and send delegates with mandates to district and town councils. In their turn the councils enabled decisions to be taken and implemented which gave a strength to the workers that they did not have separately.

What is clear is that prior to 1905 no political organisations were calling for councils, no one prepared workers as to how to fight in this way. In a period of intense and politicised conflict, the need was still for discussion but particularly for coordination and organisation to take political struggles forward. Councils have therefore been a feature of periods of mass struggle.

The setting up of a complex web of councils by October 1905 incorporated metal and textile workers, bakers, print and communication workers and so forth in both Moscow and Petersburg the 2 main centres of industry. In Petersburg, print and railway workers created councils which became the heart of the central Petersburg Soviet. It raised demands related to food supplies, rents, working day, civil liberties, freedom of assembly, parliamentary freedoms etc. The central Soviet in Petersburg began with about 100 delegates and eventually comprised over 500 delegates representing about 200 works and drew support from far broader range of workers, students, soldiers sailors, state workers etc.

Trotsky points out the councils were not a means of pursuing passive or limited strikes but enabled offensive struggles against the state. Trotsky described them as ‘a natural organ’, ‘an authentic democracy’ that was “a workers government in embryo”.

And from the Summing Up in his book 1905 Trotsky says:

“Prior to the soviet, we find among the industrial workers a multitude of revolutionary organisation directed, in the main, by the social democratic party. But these were organisations within the proletariat and their immediate aim was to achieve influence over the masses. The Soviet was from the start the organisation of the proletariat and its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power”

The 1905 revolutionary wave was however defeated. The experience lived on nevertheless, and when a revolutionary situation re-emerged in 1917, workers began by re-creating councils and these organisations played a key role in driving the revolution forward a 2nd time

1917 was not simply a Bolshevik coup. The struggles at this time were based on a groundswell of militancy that gave more and more power and influence over events to the council networks. The growing revolutionary consciousness of the working class found an organisational structure where it could be expressed practically

During middle of 1917 the Mensheviks and social revolutionaries gained control of the councils and turned them into permanent committees - something which weakened the revolutionary movement from within. The Bolsheviks at that time seemed to think the councils were dead to the working class but the pressure of a rising revolutionary consciousness in late 1917 saw the councils pulled back to revolutionary goals. The councils that emerged were then based on direct control from below and had a strength and vitality that the ruling class could not undermine even with violence. Trotsky talks of soviets spreading across Russia and of regional meetings with hundreds of delegates from local soviets. There was substantial network across the whole country

It was this agitation from below by the masses involved at the base levels of councils that pushed that revolutionary process forward and continually reaffirmed working class power when those at the head of the councils weakened.

I would like to quote here Pannekoek from his book ‘Workers Councils’:

“ Where the action of the workers is so powerful that the very organs of Government are paralysed, the councils have to fulfil political functions. Now the workers have to provide for public order and security, they have to take care that social life can proceed, and in this the councils are their organs. What is decided in the councils the workers perform. So the councils grow into organs of social revolution;…..”

So what can we learn from these experiences?

From the bottom up, workers created structures that helped them fight the class struggle against capitalism. It helped them discuss and clarify themselves as well organise and plan and act. In essence each factory or locality used assemblies that created committees with mandated and recallable delegates. These local assemblies and committees then sent recallable delegates (workers deputies) to district or industry based councils. The district based councils sent delegates to regional councils and so forth.

This structure enable discussion and clarification but also united economic struggles to manage day to day life - with - political struggles to manage society as a whole. Ultimately this is very important, the councils unite the economic and the political in a way that political parties alone cannot.

The Councils also undertook the extension of struggles to involve key sectors (including the armed forces) and organised militias to protect working class districts from pogroms and state violence. They took decisions about the management of society which brought them in conflict with the local state

Finally they also based themselves in practice on the direct democracy and they found themselves continually in conflict with the reformists and the Bourgeoisie who prefer representative democracy by professionals. The councils then were a key part of a mass movement that were based on active participation by the working class. Parliamentary votes cannot create this and in fact tend to work against it.!!

By 1919 it was the Bolsheviks themselves that weakened these organisations by moving power over to party structures soon – ie they reduced the power of the councils. It is this error we need to learn from and not simply reject the Bolsheviks because of brutal state capitalist regime that the Soviet Union became.

The Bolsheviks’ mistake was tragic and major – in the end they separated the political struggle from the economic. Councils organised the factories and the political party took over the power of the state.

Here, I want to return to the point i made earlier about the differences between the SPGB and the MDF. A future revolution will throw up problems that we cannot solve now. So we dispute and argue issues as preparation, but we should still see each other as part of the workers movement and we should give the Bolsheviks that credibility too. They were not in a position to give final answers to organisational issues prior to 1917 as there had been no previous experience.

“The working class is in need of a movement………. An entirely new movement based on working class solidarity, unification on the job, free and independent workers councils in cadres of self- asserting fighting units, based on ships, rail, aircraft, workshops, pits, factories and agricultural communities.

The workers do not require professional leaders, our confidential men shall be class-conscious comrades and teachers only, dismissable at any time by a vote of their direct electors.” Icarus on The Wilhelmshaven Revolt.

I’ve stressed that I want to focus on what workers councils are, and in doing so I have particularly tried to make it clear that workers’ councils have been based on the type of democratic structure that the SPGB itself calls for - direct democracy. They are institutions that can achieve far more than the economic management in the workplace - which I think is the SPGB view.

I do however want to finish with a couple of points about the SPGB views

Firstly because the SPGB will want to dispute with the way I have used the term class struggle. We do agree that socialist consciousness is key to the way forward but rather than recognise the link between economic and political struggles in its development, the SPGB rejects economic struggles as pointless and sees important part of class struggle just in the struggle for political clarity.

SPGB sees working class consciousness as only coming from a political or intellectual process and hence it is only the party brings enlightenment to the class;. This is a key weakness in its political view - one that raises the danger of a belief that the class struggle is simply the struggle to understand the SPGB and worse, that it is simply discussion with and in some cases within the SPGB. In a round-about way, the SPGB is making a similar mistake to the Bolsheviks in 1919 by separating the two. - (this happens because it rejects the Bolsheviks rather than learns lessons from them).

Related to this view of class struggle is also the belief that Parliament can be used to as a vehicle for that struggle.

One expression used by the SPGB that I particularly object to and that is the slogan ‘Parliament - why not give it a try’?? Maybe members will call it a weak slogan, but it seems to neatly express the SPGB’s weaknesses.

In 1904 when it formed, the SPGB was probably clearer than many other working class groups, particularly on social democracy and reformism. But a hundred years later I want to say this is no longer a realistic or indeed materialist view of the working class experience. We have much more experience of how parliament functions in class society and we should have learnt better than that.

The Bourgeoisie likes to have us think of the world as divided between good western democracy and the underdeveloped world where dictators and bullies usurp power to maintain their own rule.

In fact, if you make an overview of the countries in the world, they are virtually all described as democracies with universal suffrage. Only a few exceptions don’t meet this standard – UAR, Saudi Arabia and Western Sahara. The real issue here is why on earth the ruling class would build and rely on an instrument to front its political system which according to SPGB makes revolution easier. No this is not a materialist viewpoint.

The Bourgoisie’s parliament is representative democracy and this institution has shown itself to be the ideal figurehead for capitalism. That is the materialist argument

In conclusion, the SPGB correctly recognises that the working class is revolutionary because of its situation as the exploited class within capitalism. Only the working class can bring about socialism - nobody else. But this does not meant it is just the experience of working for a wage that brings this situation about, it is also a product of workers’ whole experience of the labour market, working contracts, working conditions, state policies - and - all economic and political struggles with the ruling class that flow from this situation

Economic and political strikes, mass protests and violence confrontations can be and are part of that experience that raises working class consciousness and make its aware of its capacity to make a socialist revolution. This consciousness emerges because of its whole experience not because political minorities have persuasive skills.


and here are the notes for the SPGB presentation

The role of workers’ councils in the Socialist Revolution

What are “Workers’ Councils”? What are we going to mean by the term? One definition is given by someone who wrote a book advocating them, Anton Pannekoek. Here’s his definition:

“The organisation of production by the workers is founded on free collaboration: no masters, no servants. The combination of all the enterprises into one social organisation takes place on the same principle. The mechanism for this purpose must be built by the workers. Given the impossibility to collect the workers of all the factories into one meeting, they can only express their will by means of delegates. For such bodies of delegates in later times the name of workers’ councils has come into use.”

On this definition, “workers’ councils” are a variety of working-class organisation at the point of production. The working class organised industrially, or economically. Other varieties would be trade unions, industrial unions, one big union, strike committees.

What attitude should revolutionary socialists take towards the economic organisation of the working class? Fully in favour of course. Obviously, workers need to organise to resist the downward pressures exerted all the time on their wages and working conditions under capitalism. But there is no need to give preference to a particular form, as long as workers organise on democratic lines, with the sort of system of election of delegates and majority decision-making described by Pannekoek.

So, what would or could be the role of economic organisations of the working class in the socialist revolution? There has been one strand in the revolutionary tradition that has taken the view that these should play a leading role, that they should in fact be the instrument of the social revolution. There’s the Syndicalists with their idea of a General Strike to overthrow capitalism, the IWW with their idea that the workers should take and hold the means of production. In his book Pannekoek too envisages the working class using strike action and occupations to confront and finally overthrow capitalism.

But what about the State?

But there is one big drawback to this approach: it leaves political control, that is, the control of the State machine and its instruments of coercion, in the hands of the capitalist class. This is dangerous as it means that they will have at their disposal a powerful instrument with which to oppose any industrial action. This is why Marx in his day always insisted on the need to first take control of political power out of the hands of the capitalist class before attempting to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism.

If you accept the need to win control of political power, there are basically only two ways of doing so: armed insurrection or the ballot box.

Insurrection and minority action go together. In fact, to organise an insurrection is the origin of the theory of the vanguard party. In any event, today it is obviously out of the question on practical grounds, as the IWW and Pannekoek recognised.

So, what about elections as a way to win control of political power? Marx himself did not rule this out even in his day as long as certain political conditions were met, and said so publicly. The conditions he had in mind were a stable political structure, a government responsible to an elected law-making body, and a majority of working-class electors. He specifically mentioned Britain as an example of this. These conditions now exist in most industrially developed capitalist countries. So, today, the only practical way to win control of political power is through the ballot box, backed up of course by socialist-minded workers democratically self-organised outside parliament.

What’s wrong with contesting elections?

But even if this were not the case, that the ballot box was not a way to win political power, this would not be a reason for revolutionaries not to contest elections. Elections are a way of challenging pro-capitalist parties and politicians so they don’t get a free run. They are a way of spreading socialist class consciousness and, if a socialist is elected as the delegate of those who elected them, that secures a tribune from which to campaign against capitalism and for socialism. Having a majority of MPs on the side of the revolution would add legitimacy to it and take this away from the capitalist class.

There is no case for not contesting elections on principle. There is certainly a strong case for not voting for pro-capitalist candidates and abstaining when this is the only choice, but not for not putting up socialist candidates where this is practical. Anti-electoralism is an anarchist dogma and the onus is on those who are against ever contesting an election to make a coherent case.

The main objection seems to be that any socialist delegate sent to parliament would be corrupted and co-opted into the Establishment. This had indeed been the experience of Labour and Social Democratic parties all over the world. But who is advocating the sort of electoral action they engage in? Quite apart from thinking and spreading the illusion that capitalism can be reformed to work in the interest of wage and salary workers, they put their candidates forward as leaders who, if elected, are going to do things for people. Their MPs are leaders not delegates.

We can envisage a quite different kind of electoral politics: workers, when they have become socialist, organising themselves into a mass, democratic political party on the same basis as Pannekoek envisaged for his “workers’ councils”, i.e. no leaders, only mandated and revocable delegates. A socialist MP would simply be the delegate of those who had voted them, just as anyone elected to some central council of workers’ councils would be.

If this will work for industrial organisation, why won’t it work for political organisation? After all, the same people, the same workers, will be involved, organising themselves in the one case in the places where they work and in the other where they live (as well as with those without a job or who are retired). If you wanted to, you could even regard the mass, socialist political party as a sort of “workers’ council” as it too would be made up of workers organised on the basis of delegate democracy.

The realm of speculation

But what would be the role of workers’ economic organisations in the socialist revolution? Because they will still have a role, even they are incapable of overthrowing capitalism on their own. Essentially, it would to keep production going and to prepare to take over the workplaces and run them after the abolition by political means of the political structure that maintains capitalism.

We are now entering the realm of speculation but it is possible to imagine the political and economic organisations of the working class being joined in a single socialist movement, with each section having its specific task, the political to win control of the State and the economic to keep production going.

So, workers should organise themselves democratically at their place of work but this can take a variety of forms (industrial unions, Pannekoek’s workers’ councils, the IWW’s One Big Union). There is no need to make a fetish of one particular organisational form. What is important is democratic control by the members.

Once capitalism has been abolished these can form the initial basis for the democratic management of production. But since classes, including the working class, will have been abolished it wouldn’t be appropriate call them “workers’ councils”. There will no longer be any “workers”, just free and equal men and women running industry and society through councils of delegates.

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Excellent text Link. Very well put and coherent (although I would still argue that the Bolshevik errors could have been reversed if world revolution had come about. As it didn't, those errors (which I think you sum up very succinctly) just kept accumulating especially under the pressure of the military campaign which the Bolsheviks only won via the setting up a new kind of state apparatus. I think this explains the MANNER of the defeat of the class and as you say enables those who can be bothered to go beyond blanket denunciation of Bolshevism to learn something for the future.

THE SPGB rejoinder loses me in the first attempt at definition of the councils as just workplace bodies (taking Pannekoek out of context). That is a description of the factory committees not the soviets. As you decisively show the councils went beyond this to become real counters to the rule of the capitalist class. The suggestion that workers councils don't challenge the state is the ludicrous (did they not notice Dual Power in 1917?) but is necessary for them to peddle their political change comes via the educative/propaganda process of the SPGB who will ultimately be voted into power.

Thye are right about one thing. Anti-electoralism is not a principle but a tactic. But all that there electoralism proves is that ruling class can control the minds of the voters. It is a pointless exercise. Workers' democracy has to be more direct and particpatory as you well argue. Bravo. Must try to listen to the discussion.

Agree that this is an excellent overview. Maybe we can pare it down for an article in the next Aurora?

The audio can now be found at

and also at

If you want to make use of the text on councils, please do. Im quite happy for you to go on and edit it down too