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Council Communism (1)

The First World War and the emergence of new forms of workers' struggle

The situation in most of the belligerent countries was pre-revolutionary, if not revolutionary. But setting aside Russia, we find three types of situation. In Germany and Austria, councils covered the entire territory and assumed at least partial power; in Bavaria and Hungary they wielded formal political and social power at the summit: while in England and Italy, even if the councils had no political power, they nonetheless developed into a far from negligible council movement.

Workers' councils made their appearance in Austria in November 1918, at the same time as in Germany. They rapidly spread to cover much of the country; but very nearly all of these organizations were formed on the initiative of the socialist party, and socialist militants were well represented on the councils' highest bodies -- the executive committees. Furthermore, and here lies the main difference with Germany, the Austrian councils were never once in a position to seize power. The revolution, if revolution there was, occurred within the framework of State and parliamentarianism. [4]

In Germany, on the other hand, the councils were constitutional in character. The first occasion was on 10 November 1918, when the Greater Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Council confirmed the composition of the new government, which was followed by the transfer of executive power to the government on 23 November. [5] Similarly, a month later the Pan-German Congress of Councils handed over its powers to a future Constituent Assembly, for which it then voted.

But reality was more complex than these juridical forms suggest. The situation arose out of the balance of political power and of the very nature of the workers' councils in Germany. The latter made their appearance in the wake of the strike movement and the army mutinies which hit the country as from 1917. These strikes were aimed at employers who refused to increase wages despite rising prices; and at the government, which was doing nothing to halt the war, but they were also directed against social democracy and the unions. As far back as August 1914 the SPD (the German Social Democratic Party) had adopted a policy of collaboration with the imperial government; it was not long before the party came to be seen as both a hostage and a guarantee for the government. True, the leaders favoured a 'war to the finish'. As for the unions, they had undertaken to avoid all industrial conflicts for the duration of the war. And it was not an uncommon sight to see the General-kommission (their supreme body) making common cause with employers and the military authorities in order to smash a work stoppage. As a result, the wave of strikes affecting Germany from April 1917 onwards took on a distinctly anti-union colouring; wildcat strikes broke out with growing frequency right up until the armistice, only to spread with even greater vigour from that moment on. [6]

These 'illegal' actions swept the old union structures clean out of the factories. In their place workers proceeded to elect delegates who would be answerable to the rank and file, and who were hostile to the existing hierarchy. The delegates met in works committees (Betriebsräte), prefiguring the workers' councils proper, elected on the same basis but for the purposes of political representation. [7] While one can point to the existence of councils as early as spring 1917, it was only in the autumn of 1918 that they began to spread so widely that, in the eyes of public opinion, they came to incarnate the mass revolutionary movement. [8] It was the naval mutinies which sparked off a movement that had been simmering for at least a year; civilians were quick on the uptake and, starting with the major ports (Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen), each town, each region began electing workers' and soldiers' -- or workers' and peasants' -- Councils.

In the beginning there can be no doubt that these councils arose spontaneously, but the situation soon settled down, and by December 1918--January 1919 it was already possible to take stock of things and to distinguish three categories of council, depending upon the size of the locality.

In most small and medium-sized towns the initiative was taken by the local SPD organization (generally in collaboration or in agreement with the local branch of the unions), either by arranging for the election of a council on a show of hands at a mass rally, or by designating the candidates itself. In rural areas councils were often formed without socialist participation, and bourgeois or agrarian delegates were not infrequent. [9]

In the big towns, notably the industrial ones, the SPD allied with the USPD (independent social democratic party, offspring of war-time pacifism) in order to control a council or to form it. Where the parties did not have the initiative, they arranged to have themselves coopted on to executive committees in sufficient numbers, even when the councils were elected by factory delegates -- the purest form of workers' democracy. In some large towns, however, it was the 'left-wing radicals', the revolutionary wing of social democracy, who wielded the predominating influence. But, in general, the SPD was in control of the council organizations. [10]

From the point of view of the country as a whole, two councils assumed particular importance: the Greater Berlin Council and the Pan-German Council, constituted on the basis of nationwide elections. Both were led by social-democrat majorities. Thus, of the 489 delegates to the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils (16-20 December 1918), 292 belonged to the SPD, eighty-four to the USPD, while only ten were Spartakists.

One may conclude, from this rapid survey, that the spread of councils did not in itself express any project going beyond the establishment of a democratic republic within the framework of the capitalist regime. [11] While it is true that, from mid-November on, councils began replacing regional and local authorities all over Germany, the administration nevertheless stayed at its posts and the social power of the landowners and industrialists remained intact. It was within the framework of this power system that the change in political regime took place; a change sanctioned by the councils, moreover, since their national executive handed over the job of drawing up a constitution for the German Republic to a parliamentary assembly.

The fact that the councils were almost entirely dominated by the SPD was due to the existing balance of power between the various parties and revolutionary groups. But if the councils had no reality outside the parties and unions whose representatives populated their executive committees, this was due less to the existence of the workers' organizations than to the inevitable limitations upon any attempt to transcend social-democratic consciousness at the time. Radicality was as yet able to express itself only in terms of the project of factory committees and workers' councils.

One is inclined to wonder whether this was equally true of those countries where the councils wielded both political and social power, as was the case for a brief period in Bavaria and in Hungary.

The Bavarian monarchy fell on 7 November, and Kurt Eisner proclaimed the republic, which he intended should be organized along democratic lines. Five months later he was replaced by a first republic of soviets presided over by Ernst Toller, who in turn gave way to a second republic of soviets with the communist Eugene Levine at its head. The role of the councils in this merry-go-round of regimes was reduced to that of sounding board for the avatars of this inter-party struggle. For, here again, real power was in the hands of the SPD and the USPD, soon to be joined by the recently formed communist party. Thus, both Eisner's provisional government and Levine's council of people's commissars resulted from a coalition of parties which held together thanks to the lynchpin role played by the independent socialists. Despite the presence of anarchists, the councils themselves reflected these partisan cleavages. [12]

The situation was different in Hungary insofar as the socio-economic regime itself was shaken. Nationalization and land redistribution measures were planned, even if they did not lead to genuine socialization during the 133 days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (22 March--2 August 1919).

The significance of the councils in Hungary should be analysed in the light of the external situation on the one hand, and of the political forces at work on the other. It differs before and after the establishment of the Soviet regime.

The emergence of councils during the war [13] corresponds to the growing radicalization in the belligerent countries. From November 1917 onwards, violent strikes and sabotage occurred in the principal factories, and a general strike in June 1918 brought the economy to a standstill. These were very bitter strikes, whose political character was more pronounced than in other countries. Continued pressure from the workers led to increasing radicalization. In January 1919 several factories were confiscated from their owners and run by the local workers' councils. [14] Despite the existence of an aggressive minority which directly attacked the unions, the latter had long been solidly established and constituted a vital cog in working-class life. Together with the socialist party they controlled the Workers' Soviet of Budapest, the only one to play an important political role. Thus it backed Count Karolyi's government, in which the socialists were represented. It approved all the measures presented by the social-democrat leaders, notably the alliance with the communist group, which was demanding the establishment of a council regime.

In this respect, the establishment of such a regime in Hungary looks rather like an operation artificially grafted by the propagandists grouped around Bela Kun, who had received some political training during their captivity in Russia. Faced with the threat of invasion by the Entente powers, the socialists formed a government together with the communist leaders, hauling the latter from the gaols into which they had allowed them to be thrown shortly before.

The supreme authority in the new republic was represented by the Budapest Council. Following the April 1919 elections, its executive committee contained fifty-six socialists and twenty-four communists out of eighty members. [15] So the new regime rested, right from the outset, upon a compromise between the communists and socialists, the latter deciding in all disputed cases. [16]

Paradoxically, the reason why the socialists accepted what might otherwise look like a very poor bargain, even though they were both stronger and better established than the communists, was that they were being attacked from the left for their lack of a foreign policy capable of satisfying the nationalism of the majority of citizens. The Bolshevik project of creating a soviet regime as in Russia was shelved; Bela Kun, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, attempted to extricate Hungary from her tricky position vis-a-vis the Entente powers and the territorial claims of her neighbours. Having failed to untie this Gordian knot, Kun and his group were obliged to step down, having also shown themselves incapable of imposing a 'subjective' solution in a country where the 'objective' situation (the importance of rural areas, solid union implantation and a very moderate socialist party) was unfavourable to them.

On the local scene, the old administration continued to exercise its authority right through this period; nationally speaking, the councils had no existence outside the parties, whose instruments they were.

While in Hungary, despite its 'soviet' regime, there was no council ideology distinct from Bela Kun's bolshevik schema, England experienced a genuine movement in favour of free and autonomous workers' expression. This movement, known as the 'shop stewards' movement', combined two different phenomena.

On the one hand, before the war, the Socialist Labour Party and the Guild Socialists had been spreading propaganda in favour of workers' control. This was still only a timid plan to give workers some say in the running of their factory, and although both projects stipulated that the workers would be represented by their unions, the latter were resolutely opposed to any such scheme (as was the majority socialist party, the Labour Party).  [17] But the idea was so well received by the metalworkers and miners that the Trades Union Congress ended by adopting, in 1918, the principle of joint control in those industries whose nationalization it was demanding.

On the other hand, the wartime period was also a time of great agitation, particularly among munitions workers and miners. Most union leaders backed the National Government and its war-time policies right up to the hilt! [18] Since, on top of this, the unions had undertaken to abstain from all strike-backed wage claims, the workers felt obliged to turn to their shop stewards (originally little more than union recruiting agents, having no power to negotiate) in order to make themselves heard.

Discontent came to a head in 1915 following two initiatives by unions that had subscribed to an 'industrial truce' and had turned a blind eye to the practice of 'dilution' (employing semi- or unqualified workers to do qualified work) in munitions factories. The Clydeside metalworkers' strike (early 1915) confirmed the shop stewards in their new and 'illegal' role; now that they were organized into workers' committees they constituted the expression of rank-and-file opposition to all authority, whether employers' or unions'.

The Clydeside strike was followed by disputes in other sectors of the economy. An uninterrupted succession of work stoppages and violent confrontations took place between the outbreak of the great May 1917 strike (which had broken out in the munitions industry) and the miners' strike of 1920; the shop stewards played a leading role in all these disputes.  [19] Each factory, each region set up its own workers' committee, delegates being elected on a non-union basis. In most cases, these movements originating in the rank-and-file clashed with the existing organizations. [20]

This phenomenon became very widespread in the first three or four years of its existence. Particularly vigorous among the metal-workers, the movement expanded after 1918. Regional committee leaders began to set up a national structure as early as November 1916, and by August 1917 a conference was attended by twenty-three committees. A national council was elected, but the committees preserved a good deal of autonomy.

As for the themes most frequently discussed by the shop stewards' movement, we should distinguish between those which are consubstantial so to speak, with the movement itself, demanding direct rank-and-file representation, the control of industry by the workers themselves and even the negation of the capitalist State, and those which were soon to be propagated by the national leadership. The latter were more politically marked in character and were to popularize slogans originating from the Russian Bolsheviks. As time went on, the distance separating the initial impetus and the movement's national council widened. While the rank-and-file movement declined following the end of the war, most of the delegates and committees being absorbed into the unions, the leaders, who now constituted a distinct group, agitated in favour of joining the communist party. We have come a long way from the ideological premises of 1916-19 (worker's control, setting up of factory organizations, negation of the State). The slogans had now become: conquest of the State, construction of State socialism, construction of a communist party. This evolution was complete by 1921, when the National Conference of the Shop Stewards' Movement declared that the proletariat alone was incapable of managing production without the socialist State; the unions were rehabilitated, and political action in the narrow sense of the term came to the fore. [21]

As can be seen, the shop stewards' and rank-and-file movement only represented something really radical and innovative in its first years, before it came to incarnate a precise political project. Its limitations arose out of the circumstances which gave birth to it: the complex problem of dilution, which was resolved when the unions returned to their restrictive, corporatist attitudes following the end of hostilities. At all events, the limits to the radical consciousness of the movement were those of a highly stratified working class. It would be another half-century before the re-emergence of wildcat strikes and rebellious shop stewards expressing the demands for autonomy of a levelled and homogeneous class.

In Italy, the rising revolutionary wave gave birth to some original thinking on the role of councils in the workers' struggle. The post-war period especially was marked by disputes between workers and bosses. Strikes intensified towards the middle of 1919 (metalworkers in the north, agricultural labourers, typesetters, textile workers, sailors).  [22] The economic crisis, unemployment, the problems of demobilization, all worked to create an explosive situation: anything seemed possible, especially given that the majority of the Socialist Party (PSI) was 'maximalist', i.e. revolutionary, refusing to participate in any bourgeois government. The first factory occupations occurred in March 1919, at Bergamo, where a factory committee took control of production. [23] By the end of 1919 a network of councils in the Piedmontese metal industry involved 150,000 workers. A general strike broke out in Turin in April 1920 concerning legal time (introduced during the war, and which the employers were anxious to suppress). In fact, the strike rapidly turned political, the employers proving exceptionally intransigent and refusing to recognize a non-union workers' delegation. The movement also met with the resistance of the metalworkers' federation, the FIOM, which was hostile to the factory committees. With the PSI refusing to call for an extension of the strike to Italy as a whole, the dispute ended in a compromise that was far from satisfactory for the Turin metalworkers.

The September 1920 strike, on the other hand, broke out in Milan and affected the whole of Italy. Virtually everywhere it was accompanied by factory occupations and even workers' control. But this time the strike had been called by the FIOM as a tactical weapon aimed at breaking the employers' lock-out; it was certainly not a spontaneous and autonomous movement.  [24] This strike too ended in capitulation: the promised legislation on 'workers' control' never saw the light of day.

Nevertheless, the phenomenon of rank-and-file organization had been stronger and more widespread in Italy than anywhere else. True, the climate reigning in the country was explosive, the particularly precocious development of fascism being a good indication of the closeness of social revolution. It was in the climate of revolutionary fever reigning in Turin early in 1919 that some young 'intransigent' socialists, active on the extreme left of the PSI, founded a review called Ordine Nuovo. The editorial committee included the future leaders of the Italian Communist Party: Togliatti, Tasca, Terracini, Gramsci. It is to the last of these that we owe an overall view of the problem of the workers' councils. Gramsci draws his inspiration from the modes of workers' representation which arose during the war, when it became quite common for workers' delegates to be elected for the purpose of maintaining discipline on the shop floor. This practice continued after the war, but was not officially recognized until February 1919, when 'internal commissions' were set up in order to supervise the fair application of the agreement which had just been signed by the FIOM and the employers regarding the Piedmontese metal-workers.  [25]

Antonio Gramsci perceived the possibility of turning these commissions into workers' councils, i.e. into organizations elected by the entire rank-and-file (even non-unionized) and whose competence would not be limited solely to questions of wages, working hours and conditions. [26] He dealt with the problem of proletarian institutions since 1918, drawing lessons from the Russian Revolution, the English shop stewards' movement as well as from the ideas of the American socialist, Daniel De Leon. But his concern for the renewal of forms of class struggle is founded upon a preliminary critique of the unions which, he wrote, had developed into an unwieldy apparatus living by laws of its own, alien to the worker and external to the masses. The unions typified a period in which capital was dominant, they had become charged with a function inherent in a regime based on private property since they sold the labour force under commercial conditions in a competitive market. They were incapable of serving as an instrument in the radical renewal of society. [27]

Gramsci thought that the party too was unsuited to the new forms of proletarian struggle: existing in the political arena, it played the same role as the unions in the economic sphere, namely that of a competitive institution owing its existence to the bourgeois State. Parties and unions were no more than the agents (agenti) of the proletariat, to serve as instruments of impulsion (propulsione) of the revolutionary process. [28]

The modern form of struggle, Gramsci continued, was incarnated in the workers' councils. Their superiority over other structures stemmed from the fact that they assembled workers at their place of work, and in their capacity as producers, and not, as was the case with the unions, in their role as wage-earners. The councils stood for the negation of industrial legality: their 'revolutionary spontaneity' implied they were ready to declare class war at any moment. [29]

But the councils were not merely instruments of struggle. In the new society they were to take the place of the capitalists and assume all the functions of management and administration. Furthermore, their task would also be to improve the conditions of production as well as to increase output. [30]

Although close to the thinking of the German councillists on certain points, Gramsci's conception was not without a certain ambiguity. Unlike the Germans, Gramsci did not break completely with classical socialism, which held that party and unions were invested with the revolutionary task. Thus, following the failures of the strikes in April and September 1920, he declared, disappointed, that it was the party's task (a regenerated and re-organized party, it is true) to give the signal for the revolution, and not that for a strikers' rally. One should not exaggerate his criticisms of the party: the target for his fury was the historical PSI, but he never questioned the superiority of separate political action. [31] He constantly assigned the socialists the task of conquering the majority inside the councils, and this majority was to play an active role in the revolution. [32] Finally, far from denying the role of the unions, he recognized that they played a useful function of education and preparation for the class struggle. [33]

Did Gramsci's 'spontaneist' period, in which he even went so far as to talk of the proletariat's 'self-liberation', result from his idealization of the Russian soviets (about which he was ill-informed).? [34] Did it come from some ephemeral libertarian influence, since militant anarchists had been active in the Turin movement? [35] At all events, from 1921 Gramsci fell in step with the Third International's doctrine concerning councils. By April of that year he was writing: "The party is the highest form of organization; the unions and shop-floor councils are intermediary forms of organization". [36] Henceforth, he proclaimed, the task of "directing the spontaneity of the masses" ought no longer to fall upon the councils but upon the party, a powerfully organized and centralized, Bolshevik-type party.  [37] Gramsci subsequently became leader of the young Italian Communist Party (PCI) and held high office in the Comintern; his council period was to be relegated to the bottom drawer of official communist history. In any case, his thinking on this subject was too marked with ambiguity, the audacity of his critique of the party was too illusory for him to be able to tread some marginal path, outside the orthodox communism with which he was to finish by identifying completely.

Despite similar situations of revolutionary ferment in a number of belligerent countries, it was only in Germany that a definite break with the past was made, and that we find the development of a theory of councils opposed to party communism.


[4] F. L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe (1918-1919) (London, 1972), p. 125ff.

[5] For a chronological and institutional description see A. Schwarz, Die Weimarer Republik (Corstanz, 1958), p. 28-9.

[6] P. Broué, Révolution en Allemagne (Paris, 1971), ch. 6.

[7] P. von Oertzen, Betriebsräte in Novemberrevolution (Dusseldorf, 1963), p. 71ff.

[8] Broué, op. cit., and E. Kolb, Die Arbeiterräte in der deutschen Innenpolitik (Dusseldorf, 1962), p. 60.

[9] Kolb, op. cit., pp. 88-90.

[10] ibid., pp. 91, 92.

[11] This is the view of most historians of the period, starting with O. K. Flechtheim, even though the latter is favourable to the revolutionary movement. Cf. his Die K.P.D. in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt, 1969), ch. 2.

[12] See R. Grunberger, Red Rising in Bavaria (London, 1973), for a chronology and account of these events. Documents of the period are to be found in G. Schmolze (ed.), Revolution und Räterepublik in Munchen 1918-1919 in Augenzeugenberichten (Dusseldorf, 1969).

[13] The first council dates back to December 1917; cf. R. L. Tokés, Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic (New York, 1967), p. 38. The vast literature on this subject is dealt with in F. Völgyes, The Hungarian Soviet Republic (Stanford, 1970).

[14] Tokés, op. cit., p. 120.

[15] ibid., p. 161.

[16] Of the 33 People's Commissars, 17 were socialists, 14 communists and two belonged to no party (ibid., p. 137).

[17] It is noteworthy that the Guilds, which were active after 1910, did not call for the ownership of industry, nor were they prepared to leave the management of industry in the hands of the workers alone. Finally, their theoreticians were careful to point out that there was no question of breaking with the unions and that they sought merely to transform the doctrines of trade-unionism, notably insofar as joint control was concerned. See G. D. H. Cole, Guild Socialism (London, 1920) p. 24.

[18] G. D. H. Cole and R. Postgate, The Common People (London, 1968), p. 518.

[19] ibid., p. 546-57.

[20] Cf. B. Pribicevic, The Shop Stewards' Movement and Workers' Control, 1910-1922 (Oxford, 1959), p. 99ff.

[21] ibid., p. 144.

[22] A. Tasca, Naissance du fascisme (Paris, 1967), p. 45.

[23] ibid., p. 54.

[24] ibid., p. 103-4.

[25] H. Prouteau, Les occupations d'usines en France et en Italie (1920-1936) (Paris, 1967), p. 40.

[26] J. M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford, 1967), p. 74.

[27] 'Sindicati e consigli', Ordine Nuovo (11 October 1919), in A. Gramsci, L'Ordine Nuovo 1919-1920 (n.p., 1955), pp. 34-9 (henceforth referred to as Opere).
   [johngray note : English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910--1920 (London, 1977), pp. 98-102]

[28] 'Il partito e la revoluzione', Ordine Nuovo (27 December 1919), in Opere, pp. 67-71.
   [johngray note : English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910--1920 (London, 1977), pp. 142-146]

[29] 'Sindicalismo e consigli' Ordine Nuovo (8 November 1919), and second article, 'Sindicati e consigli' (2 June 1920), in Opere, pp.44-8,131-5.
   [johngray note : English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910--1920 (London, 1977), pp. 109-113, 265-268]

[30] 'Democrazia operaia', Ordine Nuovo (21 July 1919), written in collaboration with Palmiro Togliatti, in Opere, pp. 10-13.
   [johngray note : English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910--1920 (London, 1977), pp. 65-68]
See also J. M. Piotte, La pensée politique de Gramsci (Paris, 1970), p. 260.

[31] Cammett, op. cit., p. 88.

[32] Cf. 'Il problema del pottere', Ordine Nuovo (29 November 1919), and 'Partito di governo e classe di governo' (6 March 1920) in Opere, pp. 56-60, 91-6.
   [johngray note : English translation in Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings 1910--1920 (London, 1977), pp. 130-134, 167-172]

[33] 'Sindicati e consigli', op. cit. (20 June 1920).

[34] Along similar lines, see Piotte, op. cit., p. 263.

[35] Even though he openly held libertarian doctrines to be 'pernicious' (Cammett, op. cit., p. 125). Concerning his relations with the anarchists, cf. P. C. Masini, Antonio Gramsci e l'Ordine Nuovo. Visti da un libertario (n.p., 1956).

[36] Cited by Piotte, op. cit., p. 271.

[37] ibid., p. 373.

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