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Utopia & Lost Futures: On the History and Actuality of Council Communism

Historical Phenomenon - Path to a Liberated Society?

November 2022. Lecture notes by Clara Zeppelin


  1. "Something is missing...": The liberated society and the deception of reality.

  2. The beginnings of council communism: self-liberation and autonomy

  3. No Hope from the East: Council Communism and Criticism of the SU

  4. What next? Council communism as the road to a liberated society?



1. "Something is missing...": The liberated society and the deception of reality

We all agree: the world could be better and it should be better!

Obvious: Climate crisis and environmental destruction, wars, pandemics and poverty for most of humanity.

Less obvious: the everyday compulsion to market one's own labour power, which has only become more individualised in the age of neoliberalism.

The mechanisms of oppression are veiled, they appear as nature, as having always existed, as not changing → A critique of these has become much more difficult since the fall of real socialism.

Any suggestion of change: is "unmasked" as a utopia that cannot be implemented: mechanised capitalism as the "smallest evil" → whereby it is already possible to ask what exactly is "small" about this evil.

Technised capitalism → capitalist realism → staging as endless reality.


Adorno in relation to fulfilment of utopian dreams, through which reality acts as if the best had been forgotten:

"(...) cheated out of the content of wishes by the fulfilment of wishes [...], as in the fairy tale where the peasant is given three wishes free and wishes the first one - I think - his wife a sausage on her nose and then has to use a second wish to wish this sausage away from her nose again."


But does this really mean that capitalism is the end of history and all utopia is forbidden?


Common on the left: Bilderverbot, which goes back to the Critical Theory around Adorno and Horkheimer and says that in the current state of an unfree society, one should not paint oneself utopias, as this would always retain an unfree character.

Often, because of a false understanding, we no longer have any ideas at all, we shout slogans at demonstrations, but then it doesn't get any more concrete: The system is built on sand/ Under the street lies the beach/ It has to be about the whole → all not wrong but it seems like a dream that can't be achieved anyway.

(historical) council communism as an answer to the question of how hopelessness could be counteracted in the here and now, how progressive movements do not toil away at the antagonisms of present society, that they do not become social democracy again, but actual antagonisms, so that things can become better after all?


So it's a question of: determining what is not fulfilled (Felix Klopotek).



2. The beginnings of council communism: self-liberation and autonomy

Historical examples that are well known: Councillor Republic here in Munich 1919, Kronstadt Uprising 1921, the Central German Uprising 1921.


Marx on the Paris Commune of 1871: it was "the finally discovered political form under which the economic liberation of labour could take place."


"The Commune was a revolution against the state itself, against this supernatural miscarriage of society; it was a revival by the people and of its own social life. It was not a revolution to transfer state power from one faction of the ruling classes to another, but a revolution to break this hideous machine of class domination itself, .... The Commune was the decisive negation of that state power and therefore the beginning of the social revolution of the 19th century. Whatever, therefore, its fate in Paris, it will make its way around the world."

Karl Marx. "Civil War in France", MEW Vol. 17, p.342.


Call to the workers' movement: "The Commune should not be a parliamentary but a working body, executing and legislating at the same time."


Critique of the political division of labour, of representation, of the system of divisions.

But: the European working class denied it solidarity → The utopian thread snapped, but form of the Council remained.


The well-known dispute between Marx and Bakunin ensued: exemplary of the irrevocable rupture between "Marxist" and "anarchist" labour movements → only 30 years later did a new form of radical thought develop on the fringes of the labour movement, which transcended this rupture


Experiences from the Russian revolution in 1905 and the mass strikes in Europe led to the emergence of workers' councils


Emergence of workers' councils: In them, the overcoming of capitalist exploitation and the rejection of bourgeois parliamentary politics coincide → were an international phenomenon from Russia to countries in Western and Central Europe

Theorists: on the extreme left wing of socialist or social democratic parties: Rosa Luxemburg, Otto Rühle, Anton Pannekoek, Leon Trotsky // German-Dutch Left.


Pannekoek as an authoritative theoretician of the current


Organisational structures: AAU and KAPD workers' unions


Decline of the German council movement: "For the Social Democratic-dominated German council movement in the autumn/winter of 1918 ended in farce: it empowered itself and worked to integrate itself into the parliamentary system"


The climax and downfall of the council communist movement as a mass movement: The "Central German", Vogtland March struggles of 1921.


When the insurrectionary strike movement in Germany finally died down after 1923, the KAPD - and also the AAU - disintegrated into directions and factions, a process of division that continued fractally. The councillor movement develops into a lost future.


Theoretical basis brought together by Paul Mattic: The principle of the proletarian uprising is precisely not the seizure of power, the replacement of one elite by another, but the immediate regulation of the social needs of the hitherto dependent: Because, in the face of totalitarian capitalism, all forms of organisation of the workers' movement have proved to be capital-conformist and elitist, all that remains is self-organisation in councils. It is self-defence


The self-defence principle: embodies the art of living


Core aspects of council-communist theory:

  • At the moment of its highest consolidation of power, namely monopolistic, the decline phase of capitalism is already setting in. Implies the necessity of its immediate overcoming - the alternatives would be war, devastation, open dictatorship of capital in fascism.

  • Form of organisation replacing the bourgeois state is the workers' council → workers' self-organisation - implies complete control over the production process, which is socialised throughout

  • Bouregoisie and social democracy manipulate, regulate, shape the masses democratically → separation of politics and economy and the glorification of the individual as a historical agent

  • Refusal of any participation in the institutions and rituals of class collaboration, rejection of traditional - occupation-based - trade unionism.

  • Criticism of the Soviet Union

  • The positive must be discovered

"Proletarian subjectivity does not only include the beauty of self-empowerment: The 'inside' of fascism, be it its 'authoritarian character', be it the anti-Semitically driven participation of large sections of the proletariat in Germany, was not placed at the centre of their analyses by the theorists of council communism."




3. No Hope from the East: Council Communism and Criticism of the SU

"All power to the councils" of the Bolsheviks was never implemented → authoritarian state communism

1921: The sailors in the Kronstadt Uprising demanded a return to council democracy → Four years after the Bolsheviks had militarily and conquered and symbolically transferred state power to the councils, the councils were effectively deprived of all power


Criticism even before Kronstadt:

Luxemburg: "It is autonomous struggle alone that trains the militants both against opportunism and with regard to the existing relations of domination."

Trotsky and Luxemburg defend to Lenin the "primacy of social emancipation"


Emphasis by Dutch council communists: liberation of the working class only the work of the working class itself; consciousness and the spirit of the workers therefore decisive → rejection of the party model


Other critics: Otto Rühle and Franz Pfemfert


Franz Pfempfert: "But this world reaction is not only the private capitalist state, but also the system of government of state capitalism. The world reaction is Moscow."


Otto Rühle: "In Russia it has also turned out in practice what is theoretically self-evident: that a centralist party (...) is never capable of creating councils. (...) Russia has the bureaucracy of commissariats. (...) It has no council system. The soviets, which were formed in public elections, according to party lists and under unheard-of government terror, are not councils in the revolutionary sense. They are councils. They are a political deception. A world fraud. (...) The party prevents Russia from arriving at the council system. But without councils there is no socialist construction, no communism. Party dictatorship is bureaucratic rule, is despotism, is state capitalism, is worse exploitation and servitude." (Otto Rühle) (p.161/162)


The Bolshevik terror is characterised as bourgeois precisely because it does not follow the communist aspiration to emancipation


Councillor communism as the figure of the radical workers' movement which in political terms broke extremely consistently with the traffic forms of bourgeois-capitalist socialisation - defended workers' self-liberation against the party apparatuses of social democracy and Bolshevism


Historical limits: Not free of historical-philosophical economism and determinism.



4. What next? Councillor communism as a path to a liberated society?

Dusty hope of the council communists for the self-liberation of the workers? What does this mean in neoliberal capitalism? How does a revolutionary subject emerge? All this cannot be answered here in a nutshell, nor is it intended to be.


What the history of council communism shows us: a way out of hopelessness, an improvement/an approach in the here and now that does not make common cause with the state and its institutions, but is and should remain antogonistic.


Reference to Adorno and the ban on images: "That one would say concretely what would be possible with the present state of the productive forces of humanity - that can be said concretely and that can be said without painting and that can be said without arbitrariness".


The Friends of the Classless Society: Outlines of the World Commune


Thought: Passion that could become unconstrainedly productive in a liberated society


In reference to Anton Panekoek: No meaningless jobs but only travail attractif: In work that does not take place under the command of a boss but in free cooperation with others, that does not only aim at maximum output but, "forms the senses, abilities and reflective capacities" of the producers. Finally, through rotation and appropriately short exercise, even stodgy activities could be acceptable."


"There is no separation between politics, as the life occupation of a group of specialists, and economics, as the life occupation of the great mass of producers (...) The councils are not politicians, not a government. They are messengers who convey and deliver the opinions, the intentions and the will of the workers' groups."


Not even "the central councils have a government-like character", because "they do not possess any means of violence" → a state as a central power separate from society no longer exists


Technical progress no longer for capital, but to make unnecessary labour superfluous, not all technical progress under capitalism is useful


Out of the irrationality of the present order: contours of a free commonwealth: reorganisation of the machinery according to the needs of the producers, abolition of pointless, automation tiring and appealing design of still necessary activities, if nothing else helps, rotation of still necessary but still unpleasant tasks, end of wage labour and any coupling of consumption to performance, development of a truly social wealth


There is no separation between politics, as the life occupation of a group of specialists, and economy, as the life occupation of the great mass of producers (...) The councils are not politicians, not a government. They are messengers who convey and deliver the opinions, the intentions and the will of the groups of workers."


The transition to the Commune seems only conceivable as a wild movement of occupations that seizes everything that is of use to them - housing, public buildings, businesses, land, means of transport - or blocks and sabotages what needs to be shut down.


Dissolving unnecessary jobs, rotation and no specification, abolishing division of labour, opposing the state and the unions, could be formulations in this direction.


"Councils alone do not constitute an emancipatory potential, not a realisation of autonomy, they are a necessary, not a sufficient condition, this too can be learned from council communism"




Literature references and sources are available on request.



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