Leicester meeting on Council Communism - Tues 25 April 2017

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Serge Forward's picture
Serge Forward
Joined: 14-01-04
Apr 17 2017 17:38
Leicester meeting on Council Communism - Tues 25 April 2017

Here’s an advance reminder of our forthcoming libertarian socialist discussion meeting which takes place at 7pm on Tuesday 25th April. The topic for this month’s discussion is:

What is council communism and is it still relevant today?
Council communism was an influential, historic left-communist current which developed mostly in Germany (where it became a significant force within the working class movement) and the Netherlands, with notable theorists and supporters such as Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, Otto Rühle, Sylvia Pankhurst, Paul Mattick and Reichstag fire starter, Marinus van der Lubbe. Lenin dismissed it as an “infantile disorder” but council communist ideas have since influenced a range of more libertarian left-marxists as well as non-marxist groups such as the Anarchist Federation. So what is it exactly and what can we learn from it today?

This meeting is organised by the Leicester group of the Anarchist Federation and takes place at the Regent Sports & Social Club, 102 Regent Road, Leicester LE1 7DA which is just a short walk from Leicester train station.

Tom Henry
Joined: 26-09-16
Apr 18 2017 01:06

Good luck with this. Thought the below might be useful.

A genealogy of council communism – Rudolf Rocker’s unacknowledged anarchist contribution. Also, the persistent council communist (and Marxist) disdain for anarchism:

Councilism was actually prefigured long before the 1920s in the old anarchist idea of workers’ councils. The opposition to the idea of the State, which the councilists took up after 1919, was what the anarchists had been saying all along, but both these factors appear to be missing from Council Communist history.

The historian Marcel van der Linden points to how councilism emerged from Marxism: “One very early protest against the trends in Russia was expressed in the Netherlands and Germany by former Bolshevik sympathisers who would later become known as ‘council communists’ – a term that was probably used from 1921 on.” (Linden: 1) Of course, people across the left were swept up in enthusiasm for the events in Russia, including anarchists such as Georges Sorel (from the under-rated book, ‘Reflections on Violence’), who already had a theoretical opposition to the call for a dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, the transitional State.

But the important thing to note here is that the leaders of this protest against ‘Leninism’, names such as Otto Ruhle, Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek, who initially and perhaps naturally supported Lenin in the Revolution before “their mood changed” (Linden: 1), were all Marxist. Linden summarises the aims of this new councilist movement as embodying two notions that are important. First of all, that “capitalism is in decline and should be abolished immediately” (Linden: 3), which would indicate that there was no need for a transitional State as had been formed in Russia and which in turn reminds one of the anti-transitional State ideas developed recently by ultra-leftist theorists of communization (and even the Maoist Alain Badiou). Secondly, as Linden notes, that “the only alternative to capitalism is a democracy of workers’ councils, based on an economy controlled by the working class” (Linden: 3). This was prefigured by the anarchists of the First International in the 1860s.

But these Marxists were keen to separate themselves from anarchism. Anton Pannekoek, draws a line between industrial unionism, or syndicalism (and, therefore anarchism), and council communism by pointing to the failure of the unions across Europe at the outbreak of the First World War. In 1946 Pannekoek argued that the syndicalist model was fatally limited because of its lack of engagement with consciousness and its misunderstanding of how union leaderships would evolve and separate themselves from the base membership. He argued that syndicalism “expressed the primitive helplessness of a class that contents itself with trying to exclude from its immediate struggle differences of opinion [for example, over nationalism, or voting] on society at large” (Pannekoek: 108).

On top of this, he writes: “Practically, syndicalism went down when at the outbreak of the first world war its leaders joined their Government and submitted to their capitalist class” (Pannekoek: 108) (Actual events were far more complex than this in different parts of Europe. For Britain, see, for example, “The First Shop Stewards’ Movement”, James Hinton, 1973, Allen and Unwin, London.). Syndicalism, of course, was associated by many with anarchism. As Sorel noted in 1907, the “entry of the anarchists into the [French] syndicats [is] one of the greatest events that has been produced in our time” (Sorel: 35).

Pannekoek then, following Rosa Luxemburg and her insistence on the separation of the anarchist general strike and the Marxist mass strike (See her ‘The Mass Strike’ 1906, in which she describes anarchism as ‘counterrevolutionary’), would appear to draw his line between syndicalism and council communism on the basis of the Marxist disdain and disengagement with anarchist theory and history.

But, as anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker elaborates, the idea of councils that move beyond the political limitations of the unions can be found in anarchist theory as early as 1869. (Rocker: 70-72).

At the Basel congress of the First International of that year, the Belgian delegate Eugene Hins presented the case for worker councils “by this double form of organization of local workers’ associations and general alliances for each industry, on the one hand the political administration of the committees, and on the other, the general representation of labour, regional, national and international, will be provided for. The councils of the trade and industrial organizations will take the place of the present government, and this representation of labor will do away, once and for ever, with the governments of the past” (Rocker: 72).

The workers’ council system was referred to as Chambers of Labour by the libertarian sections of the First International and not only did it envision replacing the present government, it also contained within it a program for raising consciousness, or “intellectual training” (Rocker: 77). As Bakunin wrote: “The organization of the trade sections, their federation in the International, and their representation by the Chambers of Labour not only create a great academy in which the workers of the International, combining theory and practice, can and must study economic science; they also bear in themselves the living germs of the new social order, which is to replace the bourgeois world.” (Rocker: 77-78) This educative and consciousness-raising strategy was pursued by anarchists in France in the 1890’s, for example. Fernand Pelloutier, one of the leaders of the anarchist movement (Jennings: xxxi), sought to transform the labour exchanges into “centres of working-class life and education” (Jennings: viii fn2).

Rocker insists that the idea of the council system was pioneered by the libertarian or anarchist sections of the First International, and that it exists “in frank antagonism to any form of dictatorship, which must always have in view the highest development of the power of the state.” (Rocker: 76) Echoing Sorel, Rocker writes that the “dictatorship is an inheritance from bourgeois society, the traditional precipitate of French Jacobinism, which was dragged into the proletarian movement by the so-called Babouvists [‘professional revolutionaries’] and later taken over by Marx and his followers” (Rocker: 75).

Following from this, one can perhaps discern two claimed anti-State tendencies within modern leftist discourse, the first being found at the beginning of the anarchist tradition in the nineteenth-century and opposed by Marxism on the grounds of its absence of economic and political realism while the second emerges within Marxism in response to the course of the Russian Revolution some sixty years later. This second tendency, beginning with the original council communists, has also remained marginalized politically but has certainly exerted an influence that has helped shape groups such as Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationists, and the British group Solidarity, all of which are linked on a fragile trajectory that currently ends with the theorists of communization and has, according to Linden, had an evident influence in operaismo (defined as Italian Marxist autonomism) and the work of people such as Antonio Negri, (Linden: 11-12) that further indicates that another, slightly divergent trajectory currently ends at post-operaismo and left-accelerationism. (See, for example, MacKay and Avanessian: 1-46; Negri 2014: 363-378).

Some references:
Linden, Marcel van der 2004, On Council Communism, Peter Drucker (trans.) in Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 12: 4 (2004), 27-50, sourced at https://socialhistory.org/en/staff/marcel-van-der-linden, https://socialhistory.org/sites/default/files/docs/publications/council_communism_0.pdf pp1-18.
Negri, A 2014, Some Reflections on the Accelerate Manifesto, in Accelerate, Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian (eds.), Urbanomic Media, Falmouth, UK.
Pannekoek, A. 2003, Workers’ Councils, Robert F. Barsky (ed.), AK Press, Oakland, CA.
Rocker, R. 1989, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, Pluto Press, London.
Sorel, G. 2004 [1908], Reflections on Violence, Jeremy Jennings (ed. and revised trans.), Cambridge University Press, UK.
Jennings, J. 2004, Introduction, in Reflections on Violence, Jeremy Jennings (ed. and revised trans.), Cambridge University Press, UK.

klas batalo's picture
klas batalo
Joined: 5-07-09
Apr 18 2017 04:13


I admin this group if anyone is interested in discussion there. Also there seems to be a new "Council Communism 101" group on Facebook I wasn't aware of until now. Not sure if it's good though.

Also Tom Henry that should be an article.

Serge Forward's picture
Serge Forward
Joined: 14-01-04
Apr 18 2017 08:03

Thanks for that Tom Henry. I agree it would be good as an article. Klas batalo, thanks for the link. I don't do Facebook but will pass it on to those who are.

Joined: 10-10-08
Apr 18 2017 19:29

I intend to make one of these someday but good luck in the meantime as its great and important to have these forums

Serge Forward's picture
Serge Forward
Joined: 14-01-04
Apr 25 2017 13:28

Bump... it's tonight!

Red Marriott's picture
Red Marriott
Joined: 7-05-06
Apr 25 2017 17:39
Of course, people across the left were swept up in enthusiasm for the events in Russia, including anarchists such as Georges Sorel (from the under-rated book, ‘Reflections on Violence’), who already had a theoretical opposition to the call for a dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, the transitional State.

AFAIK Sorel wasn't ever a self-defined anarchist and writes of anarchists in ‘Reflections on Violence’ as something distinct from him. In later post-1917 editions he also added an Appendix praising Lenin & the Bolsheviks.

Tom Henry
Joined: 26-09-16
Apr 26 2017 06:04

Hi Red Marriot,

You are right, I think, about Sorel not identifying as an anarchist, this was partly due to the age at which he came to his views and wrote the book, and the 'middle class' lifestyle he had led up to that time. But what he did do was describe very well what was 'good' about anarchism in relation to what was 'bad' about Marxism, and his analysis is useful for anarchists, or anyone of course. Sorel's knowledge and analysis serves the cause of anarchism and syndicalism. In effect he wrote 'Reflections' as an anarchist, even if he wouldn't presume to call himself one.

He was, like many on the far left, swept up by the events of Russia and did indeed praise Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but unlike those who later objected to Lenin (the council communists, for example) he didn't have the time or the youth (or, probably, connections) to re-assess the Russian Revolution - he died in 1922 at the age of 75.

If one reads the book it is clear that he would have objected to the course of the Russian Revolution if he had become properly aware of it, or had had time to think about it. Otherwise he would have had to abandon his whole thesis about the elemental/inherent Jacobinism within Marxism. I think the translator of 'Reflections', Jennings, does make this point. It really is worth reading the book.

He has unfortunately gone down in history as some kind of dodgy right-winger who influenced right wing types who advocated violence, but this, if one reads the book is absurd. The right wing types (on the Wikipedia page it says Mussolini and Carl Schmidt) who may have used him, misunderstood what he was on about.

His idea of the General Strike was that the mass stoppage of work would be a peaceful tactic, in effect, that caused an unpardonable 'violence' to the State and Capital. What happened after this initial 'violence' was something else entirely of course - and the task of the strikers in this situation was, according to Sorel, to avoid the re-imposition of the Capitalist State as well as the creation of a Worker's State/Transitional State - which would have emerged as Jacobinism once again.

His book is really interesting because not only does it do a good job of showing the differences between Marxism and Anarchism, and exposing the Jacobinism in Marxism, it also defines two types of violence - the violence that leads away from power and control, and the violence that leads towards it. He names the first violence 'violence' and the second violence 'force'. The first is, in societal forms, a centrifugal violence that facilitates autonomy; the second is the centripetal violence that forms - and reforms in the case of Marxism/Jacobinism - the state.

His ideas were taken up by Walter Benjamin in an early essay inspired by the revolt in the Ruhr in 1920 (Benjamin's essay has been crudely misunderstood by Slavoj Zizek in his book on violence and used, ridiculously, to support the strategies and pronouncements of Che Guevara).

Sorel's ideas are re-presented, perhaps/probably unawares, in the (anarchist) anthropological work of Pierre Clastres, who described ('hunter-gatherer') 'societies against the state' that operate/d on the premise of centrifugal violence in order to maintain their individual and group autonomy.

Red Marriott's picture
Red Marriott
Joined: 7-05-06
Apr 26 2017 11:06

Thanks for the recommendation, but I have read the book, though in an earlier translation. And I agree he has been poorly misrepresented by people who, mostly, haven't read the book.

As I commented, a few years ago;

From the above academic quotes it’s not clear to me why Sorel would be described as “anarchist” or “vanguardist” by anyone who’d bothered to read him. In the intro to Reflections on Violence he writes about anarchists as distinct and separate from himself and seems to see himself as an advocate of revolutionary syndicalism.

And one would have to clarify in what sense he can be termed “vanguardist”. Sorel’s critique was actually of the existing socialist vanguard and its pretentions. His main motivation appears to have been to make a critique of the reformism of the ‘official socialism’ of the existing parties and unions of his time; their “middle class leadership” was criticised as a hopeless dead-end for working class emancipation. Against the dull plodding gradual utopias of ‘scientific socialism’ – which embodied the middle class values of the parliamentarist/social democrat reformists - Sorel wanted to encourage the working class in creating a self-generating inspirational myth embodying the radical aspirations of a General Strike that made no apologies for its intentions to overcome class society – with all necessary violence that this might entail. But Sorel saw this as only clarifying and amplifying tendencies already present in the often violent class struggle of his time. Whatever the limits of those views, they arguably sought to encourage working class self-reliance on its own agency and its own formulation of goals. http://libcom.org.libcom.org/forums/theory/why-i-likedislike-david-graebers-ideas-01042014#comment-536006

But I'm unconvinced by the attempted revisionism of those, like the Black Flame authors, who try to claim self-described Marxists as anarchists. Sorel was aware of the political currents of his time, as shown in his comments on anarchism in RoV, and deliberately chose not to call himself an anarchist.

Joined: 11-02-07
Apr 26 2017 22:39

The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has a discussion of Sorel (and claims of links to fascism, which Sand dismisses) in the preface to 'Twilight of History', his latest book. It's possible to read this by following 'look inside' from the amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Twilight-History-Shlomo-Sand/dp/1786630222

Tom Henry
Joined: 26-09-16
Apr 27 2017 09:18


I haven’t read any Black Flame stuff, so I don’t know what you mean by this reference to ‘revisionism’. I am not doing any kind of ‘revisionism’ here in the sense that you may be implying.

Yes, Sorel was a Marxist, but he didn’t fit with the other Marxists, just like the Council Communists later didn’t fit, and just like people like Rosa Luxembourg indicated they might not ultimately fit. Sorel was a serious scholar of Marx and wanted to bring out what was essential to what Marx actually wrote and thought, and this led Sorel into an appreciation of anarchism in its specific strategy of joining the syndicats (bourse de travail, or 'rank and file' unions) around the turn of the 19/20th century.

There is some debate over what he exactly was politically, but pursuing this debate is a bit of a waste of time I think – since what he actually wrote in RoV is more important and interesting. Perhaps I shouldn’t have called him an anarchist in my post, as this has deflected this into a question of what party cards he held in his pocket (none). In the Jennings translation Jennings quotes Sorel as saying that he saw himself as simply a ‘disinterested servant of the proletariat’ (not that that means he was humble and self-effacing, he was not averse to claiming a bit of cleverness, but he did recognise his distance from 'activism').

But, the reason I have lumped Sorel with ‘anarchism’ is because of the constant praise of anarchism that runs through RoV. For example, this bit of his ‘Letter to Daniel Halevy’, which forms the first part of the Introduction to the original published volume (so I presume you have this text RM?):

Many anarchists finished up by getting tired of always reading
the same grandiloquent denunciations hurled at the capitalist
system and set themselves to find a way which would lead them
to acts which were really revolutionary; they entered the syndicats
which, thanks to violent strikes, somehow realized the social war
they had so often spoken of. Historians will one day see in this
entry of the anarchists into the syndicats one of the greatest
events that has been produced in our time; and then the name
of my poor friend, Fernand Pelloutier, will be as well known as
it ought to be.

And this bit, for example, from the chapter ‘The Political General Strike’:

It has more than once been
proposed that the government should be brought to a standstill in
this fashion by a stoppage in the working of the mines or of the
railways. For such tactics to produce the full effect desired, the
strike must break out unexpectedly at the word of command of the
party and must stop at the moment when the latter has signed an
agreement with the government. It is for these reasons that politicians
are so very much in favour of the centralization of the
syndicats and that they talk so much about discipline. It is well
understood that this discipline is one which must subject the proletariat
to their command. Associations which are very decentralized
and grouped into bourses du travail would offer them far fewer
guarantees of success; so that all those who are not in favour of a
solid concentration of the proletariat round the party leaders are
regarded by the latter as anarchists.

Despite what I have written on the exciting analysis of Sorel I am not here defending/promoting anarchism over Marxism. My intention was simply to show how Council Communism was prefigured in the First International (in the Chambers of Labour), and how others before the Council Communists had developed a critique of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transitional state.

On another level, the differences between those who support or oppose the dictatorship of the proletariat or transitional state dissolve when it comes down to what strategies or positions are to be employed to raise - or help facilitate the raising of - the consciousness of workers so that they begin to desire a revolution, or are able to maintain the gains of a revolution. Sorel never went this far, but it is in the answers to this question that Jacobinism ultimately lies, in my opinion. And it lies there for Marx and Marxism, council communism, communization, and anarchism.

Tom Henry
Joined: 26-09-16
Apr 27 2017 00:01

I couldn't get the 'look inside' feature through the link Mark put up, but I could find it on the US Amazon site:


Tom Henry
Joined: 26-09-16
Apr 27 2017 09:05

I have just properly realised, with some amusement, that this debate on Sorel - whose main ideas in RoV are really interesting - in which I have got caught up, has been sparked by my throwaway line implying that Sorel was an anarchist (who got swept up in admiration for Lenin, writing up his admiration as an appendix for RoV in 1919). Of course, I have outlined in later posts why I do not think such a description of Sorel is unfounded, but I have also indicated, I hope, why I think arguing over it is pointless.

But for the purposes of what I wrote in my first post, as a perhaps alternative view on the history/origins of council communism, we should be considering the work of Rudolf Rocker, not Sorel, in making the link between the 'Bakuninists of the First International' and the council communists from 1921 - a link that the council communists are/were unaware of or denied for some reason (eg, their disdain for anarchism).

Rudolf Rocker's history is interesting to me because I have long been drawn to the council communists, but repelled by their disdain for anarchists. Not because I support anarchism (or council communism) but because I find it difficult to tell the two strands apart except on issues of style.

As part of this, one finds a representation of anarchists as kind of pariah running through Marxist history, expressed by Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Anton Pannekoek, for example, and more recently the Maoist Alain Badiou, who now argues for a leaderless party but makes sure that he doesn't get interpreted as meaning anarchism. This tendency can also be seen in Endnotes, for example, when they berate Tiqqun for their 'lifestylism' in a similar manner to how Lenin berated the infantile disorderists (the council communists). It is always interesting when people scold others for their lifestylism with no recognition of their own particular lifestylism. It seems to indicate a certain kind of authoritarianism. (It is similar to the argument of the philosopher Steven Pinker who, for example, complains that people who disagree with him have ideological axes to grind, while he has none.)

Why oh why do all these useless lumpen idiots obstruct my rational vision of the revolution?! smile

Red Marriott's picture
Red Marriott
Joined: 7-05-06
Apr 27 2017 14:30

On Black Flame's revisionism, ie, trying to claim marxists who explicitly weren't anarchists, see;

Tom Henry
Joined: 26-09-16
Apr 27 2017 23:57

Thanks for the links.
I think I see what you mean about Black Flame. Are they trying to make anarchism 'bigger than it is', or something? Theresa May once did something with a small group of friends = anarchist.

The post on Gramsci you link to (which you wrote) does show that strong thread of Marxist disdain for the anarchists amongst Marxists - the one I identified as significant in council communists such as Pannekoek, and others, etc.

I guess the difference with Sorel (who I don't think was closely related to any 'groups', and who I think just concentrated on publishing his political/philosophical thought on things), if we are going to call him a dead set Marxist (as opposed to Marxian, or Marxian scholar) - as you seem to want to do (?) - is that he was unusual because he did praise the anarchists and thought they were the bees knees and possibly the true successors of Marx at the time he was writing (as he also took Lenin for at the institution of the soviets, not their Bolshevik take over, in Russia). Off the top of my head, without researching it, this high praise of anarchism sets Sorel apart from every other Marxist I can think of. This is significant in terms of assessing Sorel, and should not be dismissed. It is also, of course, part of the problematic legacy he left for those who desire to definitively categorise him (eg he has been described as an anarcho-marxist). Lenin (in ‘Materialism and Empirio-criticism’ 1908/9) described Sorel as a “notorious muddler” in his philosophical efforts, which is probably something he should have been proud of, since it is always those who base everything on certainty who kill the most people in modern times - on the other hand, those who are uncertain often let them get away with it. So we’re fckd both ways then.

Then there are the things he said about Jews in RoV:

From opposing the anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus case;

To: in his idealisation of “the legend of the wandering Jew, condemned to march forever without knowing rest, [that] is the symbol of the highest aspirations of mankind.”

To: the term “big Jewish bankers” (I don't know if they were overweight, but he seems a bit harsh here, still one wouldn't want to be a small banker, as they are just aspirant nobodies).

To: “It must be noticed that in Germany there are so many Jews in the world of speculation that American ideas [that speculation and fraud etc are basically OK as long as the economy is going well] do not spread very easily. The speculator [in Germany] appears to the majority [in Germany] as a foreigner who is robbing the nation.”

To: “Does not this speech [of a French MP] prove that there is an anti-Semitism in free-thinking circles quite as narrow and badly informed as that of the clericals?”

To: “It seems that it was the Jews who had entered the revolutionary movement who are primarily responsible for the terroristic measures blamed upon the bolsheviks. This hypothesis appears to me to be all the more reasonable given that the intervention of the Jews in the Hungarian Soviet Republic has not been a happy one.” (I have no idea where this ‘information’ comes from.)

This last one is taken by Battlescarred in a previous thread to imply, I guess, that Sorel was an anti-Semite, but I think a careful reading of RoV destabilises such an assertion based on this text alone. (I haven’t read anything else he wrote.) I think we should be kinder to Sorel, but I don’t really care, since nothing really matters, anyone can see… we have operated under the premises of fake news long before the term came into use.

Sorel offers a good history and some good ideas, particularly for me in the definitions of violence and force. He got Lenin wrong, but we can forgive him (see previous posts). But he does not, for me, escape the Jacobinism he thinks he does, just as, in my opinion, Marx and Bakunin didn’t either.