The bankruptcy of councilism

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As a complement to the article ‘The Conception of Organization in the German and Dutch Lefts' in this issue, we are publishing below part of a text by Canne-Mejer, a theoretician and one of the most active militants of this political current, especially in the GIC of the thirties. This text, written at the end of the 50s, is called ‘Socialism Lost'. It illustrates inhere some of the errors contained in the theoretical and political conceptions of ‘council communism' ended up by putting marxism into question and doubting the overall significance of proletarian struggle past and present. With a belief that capitalism can live forever. A capitulation to the bourgeois ideology of the post-war recon­struction period -- the ‘consumer society' that became all the rage in the 60s.

This text is prefaced by introductory remarks from our Current.

A socialist lost

When this text was written, the few survivors of the Communist Left were mostly isolated and dispersed. The long period of counter-revol­ution had exhausted their energies. The Second World War had not led to an upsurge of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat as in 1917. What remained of the Italian and the German-Dutch Lefts which had resisted for more than 20 years as small minorities, was now dislocated and very reduced in size or suffering from extreme political confusion. In this situation, political errors that had not been overcome in the past, began to lead to growing aberrations about the very foundations of revolutionary theory, about the understanding of what marxism basically is.

In the Italian Left, the Internationalist Communist Party was formed in confusion in Italy in the middle of the Second World War with the upsurge of workers' struggles in 1943.[1] It rejected the legacy of the International Left Communist group which was the most coherent in the thirties: Bilan. The criticisms and repeated appeals of the Gauche Communiste de France (Internation­alisme) to take up the profound political issues involved, fell on deaf ears. A little later, in the International Communist Party (a split from the Internationalist Communist Party), Bordiga increasingly theorized a monolithic marxism through a dogmatic and one-sided fidelity to Lenin and the Russian revolution.

As for the German-Dutch Left, their disloc­ation and incapacity to draw the lessons of the Russian revolution in the ‘30s acceler­ated their degeneration. In hammering home a rejection of the Russian revolution Canne-­Mejer in the ‘50s ended up by completely putting marxism and class struggle into question. The process leading to such incompre­hensions about marxism was not identical in these two currents and did not come from the same source. The origin of the failure of the groups of the Italian Left is to be found in their inability to assure a contin­uity with the theoretical and political ela­boration carried out by the GCI before the war. On the one hand, the pressure of the war and the post-war period led to the dissol­ution of the GCF in 1953 and all the political work organized on the basis of this continuity. On the other hand, the other tendencies of the Italian Left went from political concessions to tactical compromises, maintaining their organizations but regressing on political positions and becoming fossilized. The consequences can be seen today in the decom­position of the PCI (Programme Communiste) and the political errors of the PCI (Battaglia Comunista).

The origin of the failure of the German-Dutch Left, however, is to be found in an earlier period. In the ‘20s, they represented the most advanced attempts to understand the fundamental contributions of the new period which started with the First World War and the revolutionary wave: the impossibility of revolutionary parliamentarism; the counter­revolutionary nature of unions; the rejection of national liberations struggles; the rejection .of the ‘mass party' and any attempt to join with Social-Democracy and its ‘left' currents as well as the tactic of the ‘united front'. But in the ‘30s, because it not only rejected the Bolshevik Party but more and more even the very class nature of the October revol­ution, the heir of this Left, the ‘council communist' current, was not able to integrate the new political positions into a theoret­ical and organizational coherence. This current kept itself on a class terrain, but without really advancing beyond a repetition of undeveloped positions.

In fact, only Bilan at this time was capable of taking up the lessons of the revolution and providing the basis for today's under­standing of these questions, even though they did not carry this elaboration out to its logical conclusions. Bilan can seem unclear in its theoretical formulation of certain positions and particularly the relationship between party and class. But by rooting themselves in history, they were able to understand much more clearly the dynamic of both the revolution and the reflux and the tasks of revolutionaries. Bilan offered a more global framework, a more coherent one, in continuity with the workers' movement. At the basis of ‘councilism', however, there was a rejection of the global historical framework. The non-rec­ognition of the Bolshevik Party as a party of the proletariat prevented this current from developing a methodical and systematic criticism of the positions expressed in the Russian revolution. On the theoretical level, this current began by first under­estimating the active and indispensable function of the revolutionary political organization in the proletarian revolution and finished by negating this role at altogether. In fact, this conception shows incomprehension of the process of coming to consciousness of the class itself despite their constant but purely formal insistence on this question.

‘Council communism' continued to follow this conception. On this basis, in the period of reconstruction when it seemed, that capitalism had got a new breath of life and that the proletariat no longer had the means to carry on its struggle for class aims, Canne-Mejer, who all his life had been a devoted militant of the cause of the proletariat, ended up by spouting all kinds of nonsense about "leisure time" and "the improvements possible in the standard of living on the basis of class collaboration"!

In future articles we will return more fully to this council communist concept­ion, which is still around today.

Today, there is no longer any danger of taking the reconstruction period for any real renaissance of capitalism. But the danger of abandoning class struggle because of the difficulties of today's period does indeed exist. The under­estimation of the tasks of revolution­aries in class struggle -- as an active, organized, integral part of the struggle capable of providing clear orientations -- the irresponsibility and sectarianism reigning among groups in the ‘anti- Lenin­ist' line, are as harmful as the ridiculous megalomania of groups attached to ‘Leninism'. It can sometimes even be more harmful. The bankruptcy of the conception of ‘monolithic marxism' and the party injecting class consciousness into the class is obvious in the resounding failure of all the ‘tactics' of the groups who defend this conception. The ‘councilist' conception, however, is more diffuse, and today, when the bourgeoisie is trying to take advantage of the hesitations of the workers to disorientate and immobilize them, councilism is an ideology whose logic goes in exactly the same direction. Just as Canne-Mejer ended up by singing the same tune as the bourgeoisie in a past period. The text we are publishing has little interest in its own right but it shows the logical conclusion of a profoundly erroneous method and conception of class struggle. In rejecting marxism, it rejects all perspective for the struggle of the working class.

The point is not to take marxism as a bloc like the Bordigists do, word for word, ‘by the book', but to understand that marxism is histor­ical materialism. If the historical and political dimension of marxism is just "an old-hat rigor valid for the 19th century", and only the analysis of phenomena is preserved then the terrain of class struggle and the communist revolution is left behind, and you end up jumping into the arms of the bourgeoisie.

In this text, Canne-Mejer sees the working class as a mere economic category in society. He deals with the tasks of the proletariat only in relation to the taking over of the means of production and consumption. Class struggle is considered as a simple "rebellion" unconnected to any objective, historical necessity of the impasse inherent in the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. Neither capitalism's entry into decadence nor the over­all conditions and future of the class are dealt with, only "work itself". Canne-Mejer still has some memories left: he refers to the criticism marxists have always made, to the effect that there is no "automatic link" between class struggle and the mechanisms of capitalism. But the factors determining class struggle still have to be developed: the consciousness and action of the class. In Canne-Mejer, this simply becomes a question of "social psychology" or "ethics", and is just as mechanical, whether in parallel to or alter­nating with "rebellion". Nothing could be more alien to marxism. Canne-Mejer nowhere raises the real issues: what are the political tasks of the working class?; what is the nature and role of communists within the working class?; etc. The marxist conception of class struggle is reduced to the struggle for reforms through the unions and parliaments of the 19th century without any reference to the study of historical conditions. Marxists have always placed their struggle in this context, indicating its limits in rela­tion to the general goal of class struggle: communism through the destruction of the capit­alist state. This whole aspect is reduced to a vague notion of "fierce struggle" outside of any historical context, of the material cond­itions of the revolution, And since, according to the ‘councilist' vision the Russian revol­ution is not a workers' revolution, for Canne­Mejer this "fierce struggle" never took place in the 20th century. Even the workers' councils are forgotten. Because there has been no "fierce struggle", Marx was mistaken. The massacre of generations of workers in the counter-revolution and wars is ignored. Although "attention is drawn to two primordial phenomena of economic life during this century", the war economy is also ignored.

One ends up by joining the bourgeoisie in the study of the ‘increase in capital investment' and the ‘enormous increase in the productivity of labor'. The working class is assimilated to the unions and its present living conditions become ‘leisure'. This is what is supposed to prove Marx's miscalculations according to Canne-Mejer. Such is the sad end of councilism.

[1] See especially the articles on the early years of the PCI (Internationaliste et Internationale) in International Review no. 32 and 36.