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Council Communism

Richard Gombin

Publication Details
This is a chapter from The Radical Tradition by Richard Gombin. This english translation was published by Methuen (London, 1978). (The text of the complete book is now online on the Collective Action Notes site) Gombin wrote a number of other works including Le projet révolutionnaire, Les Socialistes et la guerre and Les Origines du gauchisme which was translated as The Origins of Modern Leftism (London, 1975) (now on line at that link) and which (largely because it includes an account of the Situationist International) became something of a rarity. (The S.I. view of Gombin can be found in Thesis 20 of Theses on the Situationist International and Its Time in The Veritable Split in the International. Online here ).

The Radical Tradition is a rather idiosyncratic critique of Marxism and of Bolshevism. This chapter is a useful basic introduction to the history and theory of council communism which is why we've put it online.

The footnotes to this online version have been expanded to give updated references to English language versions of some of the texts referred to, and also to give links where texts are online. 

Council communism

The theory of workers' councils originated in the new forms of industrial conflict which burgeoned during and immediately after the First World War. Among these new forms we can (already) mention wildcat strikes, factory occupations and the formation of committees of shop-floor delegates.

The whole question of the council phenomenon is shrouded in myths and mistaken interpretations, which induce caution. For example, while we generally tend to associate the soviet with the Russian Revolution, the original concept of the council -- based on a radical critique of the classical theory of party and unions -- was not formulated in Russia (either in 1905 or in 1917). Again, for a long time the councils were presented as an institution springing forth spontaneously from the revolutionary mass movement, incarnating the autonomy of the masses relative to the proletariat's own organisations. This is only completely true in the case of the 1905-7 Russian Revolution, and one should bear in mind that the unions were still only in their infancy at the time, while the Bolsheviks were unrepresented in the factories. In 1917, on the other hand, [1] the councils were of a very different nature, more closely resembling the type then prevalent in Central Europe. Here, reality was a far cry from legend. For councils of all kinds were formed on the initiative of one or another of the nuances of the socialist movement, or were at least controlled by them. [2]

One cannot, therefore, claim that the councils reflected an entirely autonomous reality or practice. In any case, this would have been inconceivable at a time -- to use a Leninist expression -- when even social-democratic consciousness was far from affecting all working-class milieux.

But as with all genuinely revolutionary epochs, the period 1914-21 brought with it both topian transformations of reality as well as a projection of more profound demands for emancipation which were to remain within the realm of utopia. [3] In the world of concrete phenomena one has only to think of the immense upheaval which occurred in manners, in the most deeply rooted beliefs, in habits and customs unchanged all through the nineteenth century. One should also bear in mind the development of new practices, such as active State intervention in social and economic life, the growing involvement of women of all classes in the world of work, their political as well as familial self-assertion; the end of the gold standard and of price stability, the assertion of national rights, the collapse of feudal systems (in Eastern and Central Europe). These are just some of the factors signalling a total break with the past.

Social relations had inevitably undergone a profound transformation. A whole generation had been mobilized, whether in the army, in munitions factories, agriculture or hospitals. Uprooted once and for all, it was to prove far less submissive, much more turbulent than its predecessors. Above all, it was thrust into a world of anxiety and economic uncertainty in which it was far more prone to contestation. Nor would the spirit of contestation, of revolt even, spare the workers' organizations themselves, for their attitude and behaviour in the course of this period was gravely to sap the capital of trust they had built up among militants in the pre-war era.

Paradoxically, the unions and workers' parties actually grew in numbers and discipline immediately after the war, at a time when their authority was becoming more readily questioned. The haste with which workers' and socialist leaders had rallied to their national flags, the collaboration between unions and civil and military authorities to break wildcat strikes during the war, provided working-class consciousness with a heavy dose of scepticism. So, through their new forms of action, workers in fact gave vent to a whole range of utopian aspirations made possible by secular subjection. Thus, at one and the same time. authoritarian-type apparatuses and ideologies gained in followers while losing in credibility. The first leaf of this diptych held sway for half a century, with the ascendancy of the workers' leadership becoming topia; but today we are witnessing the emergence of a quest for autonomy which was already to be found in embryo in the years 1917-21 .

The institutions which arose in this period, and which constitute a positive innovation by comparison with what had by now become a veritable working-class custom, partake of this antinomic duality. For the most part, the workers' council was under the control of syndicalist or socialist militants. But as a project (and the spontaneous and unpredictable conditions of its appearance bear witness to this), the workers' council is a concrete utopia, overriding and denying the circumstances of its institutionalization. It contains, in the form of (not immediately realizable) virtualities, the demand for autonomy currently thrusting itself into the forefront of attention.

The originality of the council movement lay in its perception of the drift of future evolution. Although its theoretical work was founded on indications only, it was certainly not based on illusion. True, it was difficult to avoid triumphalism entirely in the conditions of revolutionary ferment of those years. Some even went so far as to identify any workers' council with some form of opposition to the established workers' leaderships, thus stumbling into a dogmatism which has marked the major part of council ideology. Consequently, it is worth taking a look at the real context within which these strikes and councils, mutinies and revolts grew up before going on to deal with the theory of councils and the circumstances of its birth in detail.


[1] See Richard Gombin The Radical Tradition (London 1978) chapter 1.

[2] Generally, we find three tendencies: the moderate, chauvinist branch; the reformist, pacifist branch, less inclined to seek integration into bourgeois democracy; the revolutionary left wing, the majority of which ended by siding with the Third International.

[3] Here I am employing Gustav Landauer's distinction (in Die Revolution, Frankfurt, 1907) between topia, which is experienced and expressed reality, and utopia, incorporating both topia -- that which exists -- and that which is not expressed, but to which we aspire. The moment utopia becomes a fact it becomes topia.

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