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Council communism (occasionally referred to as Council Marxism) is a movement originating in Germany and the Netherlands in the 1920s. Its primary organization was the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD). Council communism continues today as a theoretical and activist position within both left-wing Marxism and libertarian socialism.
The central argument of council communism, in contrast to those of social democracy and Leninist Communism, is that democratic workers' councils arising in the factories and municipalities are the natural form of working class organisation and governmental power. This view is opposed to both the reformist and the Leninist ideologies, with their stress on, respectively, parliaments and institutional government (i.e., by applying social reforms), on the one hand, and vanguard parties and participative democratic centralism on the other.
The core principle of council communism is that the government and the economy should be managed by workers' councils composed of delegates elected at workplaces and recallable at any moment. As such, council communists oppose the idea of an authoritarian "state socialist"/"state capitalist" planned economy. They also oppose the idea of a "revolutionary party", since council communists believe that a revolution led by a party will necessarily produce a party dictatorship.
Council communists support a worker's democracy, which they want to produce through a federation of workers' councils. Council communism (and other types of "anti-authoritarian and anti-Leninist Marxism" such as Autonomism) are by some viewed as being similar to Anarchism because they criticize Leninist ideologies for being authoritarian and reject the idea of a vanguard party.
As the Second International decayed at the beginning of World War I, socialists who opposed nationalism and supported proletarian internationalism regrouped. In Germany, two major communist trends emerged. First, the Spartacus League was created by the radical socialist Rosa Luxemburg. The second trend emerged amongst the German rank-and-file trade unionists who opposed their unions and organized increasingly radical strikes towards the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. This second trend created the German Left Communist movement that would become the KAPD after the abortive German revolution of 1918-1919.
As the Communist International inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia formed, a Left Communist tendency developed in the Comintern's German, Dutch and Bulgarian sections. Key figures in this milieu were Anton Pannekoek, Otto RÃ¼hle and Herman Gorter. In the United Kingdom, Sylvia Pankhurst's group, the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), also identified with the Left Communist tendency.
Alongside these formal Left Communist tendencies, the Italian group led by Amadeo Bordiga is often commonly recognised as a Left Communist party, although both Bordiga and the Italian Communist Left disputed this and qualified their politics as separate, distinct and more in line with the Third International's positions than the politics of Left Communism. Bordiga himself did not advocate abstention from the unions, although later Italian Left currents developed a critique of the "regime unions", positing that most or all unions had become tools of capitalism by submitting themselves to bourgeois interests and were no longer viable as organs of class struggle. Nevertheless, those "Bordigists" who put forward this critique still held out the necessity of "red unions" or "class unions" re-emerging, outside and against the regime unions, which would openly advocate class struggle and allow the participation of communist militants.
Despite a common general direction, and despite sharing the criticism of Lenin, there were few politics held in common between these movements. An example of this divergence is that the Italians supported the Right of Nations to Self Determination, while the Dutch and Germans asked the National Bolshevik tendency led by Heinrich Laufenberg and Fritz Wolffheim to leave seeing this policy as a form of bourgeois nationalism. However, all of the Left Communist tendencies opposed what they called "Frontism". Frontism was a tactic endorsed by Lenin, where Communists sought tactical agreements with reformist (social democratic) parties in pursuit of a definite, usually defensive, goal. In addition to opposing "Frontism", the Dutch-German tendency, the Bulgarians and British also refused to participate in bourgeois elections, which they denounced as parliamentarism.
In Germany, the Left Communists were expelled from the Communist Party of Germany, and they formed the Communist Workers Party (KAPD). Similar parties were formed in the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Britain. The KAPD rapidly lost most of its members and it eventually dissolved. However, some of its militants had been instrumental in organising factory-based unions like the AAUD and AAUD-E, the latter being opposed to separate party organisation (see: Syndicalism).
The leading theoreticians of the KAPD had developed a new series of ideas based on their opposition to party organisation, and their conception of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia as having been a bourgeois revolution. Their leading figures were Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter, as well as Otto RÃ¼hle. RÃ¼hle later left the KAPD, and was one of the founders of the AAUD-E. Another leading theoretician of Council Communism was Paul Mattick, who later emigrated to the USA. A minor figure in the Council Communist movement in the Netherlands was Marinus van der Lubbe, who was accused of the Reichstag arson in 1933 and consequently executed by the nazis after a show trial that marked the beginning of the persecution of socialist and communists in Nazi Germany.
The early councilists are followed later by the Group of Internationalist Communists, Henk Meijer, Cajo Brendel and Paul Mattick, Sr. There was a resurgence of councilist groups and ideas in the New Left of the 1960s, through the Situationist International, Root and Branch in the United States, Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, and Solidarity in the UK.
Alongside and sometimes connected to the councilists were the early Hegelian Marxists, GyÃ¶rgy LukÃ¡cs (a council communist himself from 1918-21 or 22), Karl Korsch (who turned to council communism in the 1930s), Evgeny Pashukanis and I.I. Rubin.
The Russian word for council is "soviet," and during the early years of Bolshevist Russia workers' councils were politically significant. Indeed, the name "Supreme Soviet," by which the national parliament of the Soviet Union was later called, as well as the name of the Soviet Union itself, imply that the country was meant to be ruled by workers' councils. This was largely the case in the beginning, but the workers' councils soon lost their power and significance. As the new regime was turning into a single-party system, the Supreme Soviet was soon relegated to the role of a rubber-stamp parliament, and real power was concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
For these reasons, Council Communists described the Soviet Union as a capitalist state, believing that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia became a "bourgeois revolution" when a party bureaucracy replaced the old feudal aristocracy. Although most Council Communists felt the Russian Revolution was working class in character, they believed that the Soviet Union was a state capitalist country, with the state replacing the individual capitalists (an additional argument in favour of that was the continued existence of capitalist relations, as manifested e.g. in the New Economic Policy).
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