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(en) NEFAC* - NEA #8 - Book Review: Workers Councils (Pannekoek)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 6 Oct 2004 08:32:18 +0200 (CEST)


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Submitted by MaRK on Fri, 10/01/2004 - 20:35. Labor | Travail |
Northeastern Anarchist | English
In what is widely considered the classic text on council
communism, Anton Pannekoek offers a detailed account of how a
council system could function in practice. Pannekoek was the
main theoretician of the council movement, which for decades
was all but forgotten. However, in recent years a new generation
has begun to discovery its relevancy.

Pannekoek's vision is probably best understood in the context of
his experiences, which are barely touched upon in the text.
Following his days as a social-democrat in Holland in the years
leading up to WWI, he would go on to become a leading figure in
the emergence of the European communist movement. However,
Pannekoek would be among the first to break ranks with
authoritarian communism and eventually be expelled from the
German Communist Party. Critical of parliamentarism as a
strategy, he would initiate the formation of the German
left-Communist Workers Party (KAPD), a movement that
rejected party rule, favored direct workers' representation, and
took on aspects of anarcho-syndicalism.

Pannekoek, along with most Dutch and German radicals,
critically supported the Russian Revolution of 1917. He worked
closely with Lenin in an attempt to start a new revolutionary
International and saw the Bolshevik Revolution as a mass
movement largely based on council-style democracy. However,
the course of the 'revolution' changed Pannekoek's opinion. By
1919, he was openly critical of the Lenin's enforcement of the
dead-end strategies of parliamentarism and trade unions and the
destruction of the soviets (councils). Pannekoek understood that
Czarism was not overthrown by parliamentarism or trade unions,
but rather the outbreak and evolution of workers' soviets and
soldiers' councils.

Pannekoek came to reject the vanguard party model as
counterproductive to a radicalization of the working class and,
therefore decided it was an obstacle on the road to real socialism.
By 1921, he concluded that Lenin's regime was a
counter-revolutionary force and that the workers were now under
worse conditions than before the revolution. His critique prompted
Lenin to respond with "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile
Disorder.

The council movement rejected Bolshevik orders to accept
Lenin's rule. Despite the fact that the German Communist Party
dwarfed the movement, they remained active for years, upheld
their own unions, and maintained an armed militia (the Ruhr).
However, massive upheaval in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s
all but destroyed the council movement. Pannekoek, along with
many of the movement's main figures, escaped to Holland.

In Holland, Pannekoek began his work on workers' councils. This
work represents a life-long attempt to develop Marxism as a truly
revolutionary theory of self-liberation of the working class. It is
hard to imagine that he would write such a text under the most
difficult of conditions during the Nazi invasion of Holland.
Workers' Councils was first published in 1946 and later translated
into English by Pannekoek himself. It has remained largely out
print ever since, at least in its entirety. Fortunately, AK Press
reprinted this classic work. The AK Press edition is based on the
1950 Melbourne edition and is spruced up by interviews with
Noam Chomsky, Ken Coates, Peter Hitchcock, and Paul Mattick.
Contrary to what the cover says, the introduction is done by
Robert Barsky, not Noam Chomsky.

Workers' Councils is divided between theoretical and historical
material. In 'The Task,' Pannekoek gives an overview of the
capitalist system of production, the state, and shop organization,
before diving into the reorganization of production and society.
The second section, 'The Fight,' takes a critical look at
contemporary class struggles and tactics of the time period. The
remaining sections take a historical look at 'The foe' in the main
industrial nations of the time, WWII, and perspectives in the
post-war era. For the purpose of this review I will focus on
Pannekoek's theoretical arguments for the council system in the
first two sections.

In 'The Task,' Pannekoek describes the transition of labor
towards a post-revolutionary system of production and social
organization. He asserts, "The task of the working class is to take
production into its own hand and to organize it..." (p57).
Pannekoek broke from traditional Marxism by stressing that
revolutionary struggle is a psychological process. Without
downplaying the importance of material elements, he stresses the
importance of breaking the ideological hegemony of the capitalist
class. For Pannekoek, revolution was a gradual victory of the
mind and will.

Pannekoek's post-revolution vision includes a network of
autonomous shop level councils where discussions and decisions
about local production would take place. All decisions would be
made through direct-democracy, and delegates would be selected
from among the workers and immediately recallable. In very large
shops, with too many workers to feasibly include all in the
process, delegates would be selected to represent each sector of
the workforce at shop-wide council meetings. Furthermore, the
councils would coordinate production on regional, national, and
international levels. Unfortunately, Pannekoek gives little
attention to the function of the council structure beyond the shop
level. Questions of the actual coordination at the regional,
national, and international levels are left largely unanswered.

Pannekoek recognized the trade unions as organizations
necessary to counter the organization of the capitalists. He saw
the links between working class organization, mass action, and
class-consciousness, and believed struggle within the trade unions
would be a necessary pre-cursor to revolution. Although the initial
signs of working class self-activity are present in the traditional
labor unions, Pannekoek goes on to critique the dead-end
strategies they are prone to in 'The Fight.' He says the trade
unions are not revolutionary organizations and would have to be
supplanted with working class self-organization, ultimately taking
the form of the councils.

Pannekoek contrasts the parliamentarism of the trade union with
direct action in times of advanced struggle. He argues that it is
only through action taken directly by the workers, without
mediation by trade union leadership, that the fight towards
psychological victory moves forward. He envisions a long period
of increased confrontation between workers and the bourgeoisie in
which each direct action taken would strengthen the working
class in the battle for power. For Pannekoek, the psychological
impact of direct action on the working class was of utmost
importance. He gives attention to a handful of working class mass
actions taking the form of wild cats, occupations, sit-ins, political
strikes and general strikes. He argues that it is in such actions,
and the worker committees that form to coordinate the struggle,
that we see the council structure in its initial stages.

Panekoek goes on to discuss the Russian Revolution of 1927, but
he is oddly silent about the events that he was so critical of at the
time. He rightly describes the Bolshevik regime as state-capitalist
and counterrevolutionary, but hardly mentions the events that led
to the annihilation of the soviets. Just as dissappointing is the lack
of explicit discussion of his experiences in the German council
movement and its destruction. Perhaps the greatest insight into
the failure of the council movement is given by Paul Mattick in
one of the introductory interviews:

"Like anything else, forms of class struggle are historical in the
sense that they make their appearance long before their full
realization becomes an actual possibility… In either case, the
workers' councils could only eliminate themselves as their
organizational form contradicted their limited political and social
goals."

Despite the lack of inclusion of Pannekoek's experience in the
council movement, the text is a great work deserving of serious
thought and debate. I would highly recommend Workers'
Councils for anyone seriously thinking about how we go about
transforming a reformist labor movement into revolutionary
working class self-activity. My reading of the text leads me to
believe that Pannekoek would shake his head in disbelief at those
who steer clear of the traditional unions and the opportunities to
work towards revolutionary goals and organization within them.
The conditions necessary for the return and fruition of the
councils will come, will the labor be ready?

- reviewed by Iron Chef, Class Against Class (NEFAC-Boston)
======================
* NEFAC = North East Federation of Anarchist Communists


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