"Workers’ Councils,” by Anton Pannekoek (1946), Intro by Noam Chomsky
Pannekoek was what I would call a Dutch council communist who, incredibly, wrote this book during World War II, from 1941 to 1946. It is a sweeping and perhaps familiar look at world history and the situation of the working class at the time. He takes into account the long history of working class rebellions – the Paris Commune, the Belgian suffrage strike of 1893, the German and Russian revolutions, councils in China and Spain, the English shop stewards movement being mentioned. Pannekoek was an astronomer as well, hence the emphasis in this book on industrial ‘technique’ – material knowledge and skills, statistics, bookkeeping and scientific understanding. He thinks that workers’ councils are the primary form of working class organization, while working class parties are irrelevant or harmful. Pannekoek considers the council form to be Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ This is what marks his analysis as different from the versions of ‘Leninism’ that have been handed down by various sectors of the communist movement.
The book’s main strength is its description of what it takes for the working classes to overturn a social order, and begin to run a new society through the council form. It is not so much workers’ numbers or brute physical force as it is their control of the means of production and their eventual intellectual strength. As he says, “…the solidity of a system of exploitation depends on the lack of capacity of the exploited class to discern their (own) exploitation.” He dwells in detail on the stages of resistance and self-organization, in ascending order – trade unionism, strikes, shop occupations, general strikes, political strikes, council formation/dual power and ultimately overthrow of the state. In the process, he dismisses the Communist Parties, syndicalism, industrial unionism and anarchism. In essence, Pannekoek believes that a class cannot win power unless it is able to actually visualize and then practice power – as a whole, as a majority. His analysis uses a mixture of organization and spontaneity. Pannekoek: “The action is not the result of deliberate intention; it comes as a spontaneous deed, irresistingly…” And he follows with: “Organization is the life principal of the working class, the condition of liberation.”
Pannekoek claims the experiences in Russia and China, with their weak working classes, were “Asiatic’ examples, which led to a degenerated or deformed ‘state socialism’ or ‘state capitalism.’ He equates these two ostensible social formations as the same, oddly enough. This description, in spite of the archaic term ‘Asiatic,’ helps illuminate the weaknesses of the urban working class in these areas. But there is also the stagist implication that the working classes in those countries had to wait for Europe. He thinks that successful social revolutions in Europe or the U.S. (and now other rapidly proletarianizing areas) will bypass the ‘one Party’ vanguard model, as well as the social-democratic Party model of parliamentary/ evolutionary/ electoral socialism due to the development of these societies. As to the latter, he seems to oppose any kind of electoral action at all.
This book shows how far the working class – at least in the U.S. – has to go before it can become conscious of itself, let alone active in attempting to organize its own mass institutions or take power. No matter what kind of activist you are, this point is quite simple. This book reflects an earlier understanding of the role of the middle-classes, which have now grown in influence in Europe and the U.S. and other parts of the world. For instance, what do you do with the millions of white-collar workers in ‘advanced’ capitalist countries who work in useless occupations like health billing, law, advertising, security, finance, sales, etc. Nor does it deal with the present 24/7 propaganda network of capital.
Above all it reflects a somewhat larger naiveté as to what it will take to militarily defeat the capitalist state, which he says is the capitalist classes’ ace-in-the-hole. Not just the capitalist propaganda network, their ownership of production and wealth, their control of armed thugs – it is the capitalist state that stands directly in the way of a social revolution. This is where a Party or parties or bloc of parties can play a temporary role in bringing down that state, by almost military organization - especially in conditions of illegality. Council’s alone should be able to be the deciding bodies, but as organizations they will not be able, alone, to take the military actions necessary to defeat the present state and its armed forces. If the parties cooperate with the councils and try not to dominate them in a sectarian way – then a working relationship can exist. After all, working class parties are part of the class, not outside of it, just as are unions.
Pannekoek opposes bureaucratism in all its forms – union, party or ‘socialist’ state. In this he reflects the long experience of radical workers in the class fight. However, he does not address the issues of possible bureaucratism in the counsels themselves – councils that are charged with managing the revolution, then a new society. This starry-eyed view hides the fact that bureaucratism can occur in many different organizations unless consciously opposed. Yet a bureaucracy is not the same as an opposing economic ‘class’ with its own means of production and period of history – which Pannekoek, anticipating Schactmanism and Maoism – seems to believe. Marx never posited a ‘new class’ bureaucracy that would intercede between socialism and capitalism as an historic stage of material enrichment.
Pannekoek analyzes the formation of the bourgeoisies in England, France, Germany & the U.S., offering astute observations on their subtle differences and subsequent impact on the working classes. He calls nationalism the ‘essential creed of the bourgeoisie’ and praises real democracy as a natural organization of human communities. Pannekoek attempts a full explanation of almost everything happening around the 2nd World War. Fascism is ‘the response of the capitalist world to the challenge of socialism.’ He follows with analyses of National ‘socialism,’ Japanese imperialism, the rise of China, colonialism, all in the context of war, and makes predictions, some of which turning out to be true. All this written in the ruins of World War II, the bloodiest conflict in human history, a capitalist war through and through. A war that Pannekoek says ‘inaugurated a new epoch’ for the workers of the world.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
November 12, 2014