The conception of organization of the German and Dutch Left

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For discussion groups and individuals emerging into revolutionary politics today, it's necessary that their work towards clarification involves the reappropriation of the positions of the communist left, including those of the German and Dutch lefts. The latter, in particular, were often the first to defend a whole series of ess­ential class positions: the rejection of trade unionism and parliamentarianism, rejection of the substitutionist conception of the party, denunciation of frontism, the definition of all the so-called socialist states as state capital­ist.

However, it's not enough merely to reappropriate class positions on the theoretical level. With­out a clear concept of revolutionary organization, all these groups and individuals are con­demned to the void... It's not enough to pro­claim yourself a revolutionary in words and in a purely individual manner; you have to defend class positions collectively, in an organized framework. The recognition of the necessity for and organization that has an indispensible fun­ction in the class and that operates as a coll­ective body is the precondition for all militant work. Any hesitation or incomprehension about the necessity for organization will be severely punished and result in a disintegration of pol­itical forces. This is particularly true for the ‘councilist' groups today.

Drawing the lessons of the history of the Ger­man and Dutch lefts means demonstrating the vital necessity of an organization for whom theory is not pure speculation but a weapon that the proletarian masses will take up in the rev­olution of the future.

The main contribution of the German left -- and mainly the KAPD - wasn't that they recognized the necessity of the party in the revolution. For the KAPD, which was formed as a party in 1920, this went without saying. Its fundamental contribution was that it understood that the function of the party was no longer the same in the period of decadence. It was no longer a mass party, organizing and assembling the class -- but a party/nucleus regrouping the most active and conscious proletarian fighters. As a select part of the class, the party had to intervene in the class struggle and in the organs that the class gave rise to: strike committees and work­ers' councils. The party was a party fighting for the revolution and no longer for gradual reforms in organs that the proletariat no longer had anything to do with (unions, parliament), except to work for their destruction. Finally, because the party was a part of the class and not its representative or its chief, it could not substitute for the class in its struggle or in the exercise of power. The dictatorship of the class was the dictatorship of the councils, not the party. In contrast to the Bordigist vision, it wasn't the party that created the class but the class the party.[1] This did not mean -- as in the populist or Menshevik view -- that the party was in the service of the class. It was not a servant that passively adapted to each hesitation or deviation of the class. On the contrary, it had to "develop the class consciousness of the proletariat even at the price of appearing to be in contradiction with the broad masses." (Theses on the Role of the Party in the Revolution, KAPD, 1920.)

The KAPD in Germany and Gorter's KAPN in Holland had nothing to do with the views of Ruhle from whom today's ‘councilists' claim descent. Ruhle and his tendency in Dresden were expelled from the KAPD at the end of 1920. The KAPD had nothing in common with the semi-anarchist tendencies who proclaimed that any party was counter-revolut­ionary by nature, that the revolution was not a question of the party but of education. The conceptions of the pedagogue Ruhle were not at all those of the KAPD. For the latter, the party wasn't made up of the individual wills of each member: it was "a programmatically elabor­ated totality, founded on a unified will, organized and disciplined from top to bottom. It has to be the head and arm of the revolution." (Theses on the Role of the Party). The party, in fact, played a decisive role in the proletarian revolution. Because in its program and its action it crystallized and concentrated the conscious will of the class, it was an indispen­sible weapon of the class. Because the revolut­ion was first of all a political act, because it implied a merciless combat against the bourgeois tendencies and parties that worked against the proletariat in its mass organs, the party was a political instrument of struggle and clarification. This conception had nothing to do with all the substitutionist views of the party. The party was secreted by the class and consequently was an active factor in the general development of consciousness in the class.

Nevertheless, with the defeat of the revolution in Germany and the degeneration of the revolut­ion in Russia, some of the KAPD's weaknesses came to the surface.

Voluntarism and dual organization

Constituted at the very point when the German revolution was entering a reflux after the defeat of 1919, the KAPD ended up by defending the idea that you could make up for the decline in the proletariat's revolutionary spirit through putschist tactics. During the March Action in central Germany in 1921, it pushed the workers of the Leuna factories (near Halle) to make an insurrection against their will. Here it showed a profound incomprehension of the role of the party and one which led to its disintegration. The KAPD still retained the idea of the party as a ‘military HQ' of the class, whereas the party is above all a political vanguard for the whole proletariat.

Similarly, faced with the collapse of the work­ers' councils, and imprisoned in its voluntarism, the KAPD came to defend the idea of a permanent dual organization of the proletariat, thus add­ing to the confusion between unitary class organs that arise in the struggle and for the struggle (assemblies, strike committees, workers' coun­cils) and the organization of the revolutionary minority which intervenes in these unitary organizations to fertilize their thought and action. Thus, by pushing for the maintenance of the ‘Unions' -- factory organizations born in the German revolution and closely attached to the party -- alongside the party itself, it found itself incapable of determining its own tasks: it either became a propaganda league[2], a simple political appendage of the factory organizations with their strong economist tendencies, or a Leninist-type party with its transmission belts to the class on the economic terrain. In other words, in both cases, not knowing what was what and who did what[3].

There can be no doubt that the KAPD's erroneous conceptions largely contributed to its disap­pearance in the late ‘20s. This should be a lesson to those revolutionaries of today who, disorientated by activism and immediatism, try to make up for their numerical weakness by creating artificial ‘workers groups' linked to the ‘party'. This is the conception of Battaglia Comunista and the Communist Workers' Organization for example. There is however a considerable historic difference: whereas the KAPD found it­self confronted with organs (the Unions) which were artificial attempts to keep alive workers' councils that had only just disappeared, the present conception of the revolutionary organizations that have an opportunist leaning rests on pure bluff.

The Genesis of the Party

Behind the KAPD's errors on the organizational level, there was a difficulty in recognizing the reflux of the revolutionary wave after the fail­ure of the March Action, and thus in drawing the correct conclusions about its activity in such a situation.

The revolutionary party, as an organization with a direct influence on the thought and action of the working class, can only be constituted in a course of rising class struggle. In particular, the defeat and reflux of the revolution do not make it possible to keep alive a revolutionary organization that can fully assume the tasks of a party. If such a retreat in the workers' struggle is prolonged, if the way is opened for the bourgeoisie to take the situation in hand, either the party will degenerate under the pressure of the counter- revolution, and from within it will emerge fractions who carry on the theoretical and political work of the party (as in the case of the Italian Fraction), or the party will see a reduction in its influence and membership and become a more limited organization whose essential task is to prepare the theoretical framework for the next revolutionary wave. The KAPD did not understand that the revolutionary tide had ceased to rise. Hence its difficulty in drawing up a balance-sheet of the preceding period and adapting itself to the new period.

These difficulties led to the false and incoher­ent responses from the German-Dutch left:

-- voluntaristically proclaiming the birth of a new International, as with Gorter's Commun­ist Workers' International in 1922.

-- not constituting itself into a fraction but proclaiming itself to be the party after various splits: the term ‘party' became a mere label for each new split, reduced to a few hun­dred members, if not less.[4]

All these incomprehensions were to have dramatic results. In the German left, as the Berlin KAPD grew weaker, three currents co-existed:

-- those who rallied to Ruhle's theory that any political organization was bad in itself. Sinking into individualism, they disappeared from the political scene;

-- others - in particular those in the Berlin KAPD who were fighting against the anarchistic tendencies in the Unions - had a tendency to deny the workers' councils and see only the party. They developed a ‘Bordigist' vision before the word existed;[5]

-- finally, those who considered that organizing into a party was impossible. The Communist Workers Union (KAU), born out of the fusion be­tween a split from the KAPD and the Unions (AAU and AAU-E), didn't really see itself as an organization, but as a loose union of diverse, decentralized tendencies. The organizational cent­ralism of the KAPD was abandoned.

It was the latter current, supported by the Dutch GIC (Group of International Communists) which emerged in 1927, which was to triumph in the Dutch left.

The Dutch Left: The GIC, Pannekoek and the Spartacusbond

The trauma of the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik party left deep scars. The Dutch left, which took up the theor­etical heritage of the German left, did not inherit its positive contributions on the question of the party and the organization of revolutionaries.

It rejected the substitutionist vision of the party as the HQ of the class, but it was only able to see the general organization of the class: the workers' councils. The revolutionary organization was now seen merely as a ‘propag­anda league' for the workers' councils.

The concept of the party was either rejected or emptied of any content. Thus, Pannekoek considered either that "a party can only be an organization that aims to lead and dominate the prol­etariat" (Party and Working Class, 1936) or that "parties -- or discussion groups, propaganda leagues, the name doesn't matter -- have a very different character from the type of political party organizations that we've seen in the past" (The Workers Councils, 1946).

Starting from a correct idea -- that organization and the party had a different function in decadence -- a false conclusion had been reached. Not only was it no longer seen what distinguished the party organization in the period of ascendant capitalism from that of a party in a revolution­ary period, in a period of fully maturing class consciousness: there was also an abandonment of the marxist vision of the political organization as an active factor in the class struggle.

1. The indissoluble functions of organization -- theory and praxis -- were separated. The GIC saw itself not as a political body with a program, but as a seam of individual consciousnesses, a sum of separated activities. Thus the GIC called for the formation of federated ‘working groups' out of fear of seeing the birth of an organization united by its program and impos­ing organizational rules:

"It's preferable that the revolutionary workers work towards the development of consciousness in thousands of small groups rather than activity being subordinated into a large organization which tries to dominate and lead" (Canne-Mejer, The Future of a New Workers' International, 1935). Even more serious was the definition of the organization as an ‘opinion group': this left the door open to theoretical eclecticism. According to Pannekoek, theoretical work was aimed at personal self-education, at "the intensive activity of each brain". From each brain there came a personal thought or judgment "and in each of these diverse thoughts we find a portion of a more or less wider truth." (Pannekoek, The Workers' Councils). The marxist view of the collective work of the organization, the real point of departure for "an intensive activity of each brain", gave way to an idealist vision. The point of departure was now the individual consciousness, as in Cartesian philosophy. Pannekoek went so far as to say that the goal was not clarification in the class but "one's own knowledge of the method for seeing what is true and good" (ibid).

If the organization was just a working group in which the opinion of each member was formed, it could only be a ‘discussion group' or a ‘study group', "giving itself the task of analyzing social events" (Canne-Mejer, op cit). There had certainly been a need for ‘discussion groups' carrying out political and theoretical clarification. But this corresponded to a primary stage in the development of the revolutionary movement last century. This phase, dominated by sects and separate groups, was a transitory one: the sectarianism and federalism of these groups generated by the class were an infantile dis­order. These disorders disappeared with the emergence of centralized proletarian organisat­ions. As Mattick noted in 1935, the views of the GIC and Pannekoek were a regression:

"A federalist organization can no longer maintain itself because in the phase of monopoli­stic capital in which the proletariat now finds itself, it simply doesn't correspond to anything ... It would be a step backwards in relation to the old movement rather than a step forward" (Rte-Korrespondenz no.10-11, Sept, 1935).

2. In reality, the functioning of the GIC was that of a federation of "independent units" incapable of playing an active political role. It would be worth citing an article by Canne-Mejer in 1938 (Radencommunisme no 3):

"The Group of International Communists had no statutes, no obligatory dues and its ‘internal' meetings were open to all the comrades of other groups. It followed that you could never know the exact number of members in the group. There was never any voting -- this wasn't necessary because it was never a question of carrying out the politics of a party. One discussed a problem and when there was an important difference of opinion, the different points of view were published, and that was all. A majority decision had no significance. It was up to the working class to decide".

In a way, the GIC castrated itself out of fear of raping the class. Out of fear of violating the consciousness of each member through rules of organization, or of violating the class by ‘imp­osing' its positions on it, the GIC negated it­self as a militant part of the class. In effect, without regular financial means, there is no possibility of bringing out a review and leaf­lets during a war. Without statutes, there, are no rules enabling the organization to fun­ction in all circumstances. Without centralization through elected executive organs, there is no way of maintaining an organization's life and activity in all periods, particularly in periods of illegality, when the need to face up to repression demands the strictest centralization. And, in a period of rising class struggle like today's there is no possibility of inter­vening in the class in a centralized, world-wide manner.

These deviations of the councilist current, yes­terday with, the GIC, today with the informal groups who claim adherence to council communism, are based on the idea that organization is not an active factor in the class. By ‘letting the class decide', you fall into the idea that the revolutionary organization is ‘at the service of the class' -- a mere roneo and not a political group which sometimes, even in the revolution, has to swim against the stream of the ideas and actions of the class. The organization is not a reflection of ‘what the workers think'[6]: it is a collective body bearing the historical vis­ion of the world proletariat, which is not what the class thinks at this or that moment but what it is compelled to do: carry out the goals of communism.

It was thus not at all surprising that the GIC disappeared in 1940. The theoretical work of the GIG was carried on by the Spartacusbond which was born out of a split in Sneevliet's party in 1942 (cf the article in IR 9, ‘Breaking with the Spartacusbond').Despite a healthier view of the function of the revolutionary organization -- the Bond recognized the indispensible role of the party in the revolution as an active factor in the development of consciousness -- and of its mode of operation -- the Bond had statutes and central organs -- the Spartacusbond ended up being dominated by the GIC's old ideas about organization.

Today, the Spartacusbond is moribund, and Daad en Gedachte -- which left the Bond in 1965 -- is a meteorological bulletin of workers' strikes. The Dutch left is dying as a revolutionary current. It's not through the Dutch left itself that its real theoretical heritage will be passed on to the new elements arising in the class. Under­standing and going beyond this heritage is the task of revolutionary organizations and not of individuals or discussion groups.

‘Councilist' ideas of organization have not how­ever disappeared, as we can see in various coun­tries. Making a critical balance-sheet of the concept of organization in the German and Dutch lefts provides us with proof not of the bank­ruptcy of revolutionary organizations, but on the contrary of their indispensable role in drawing the lessons of the past and preparing for future combats.

Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement, but without revolution­ary organizations, there can be revolutionary theory. Failing to understand this can only lead individuals and informal organizations into the void. It opens the door to a loss of con­viction in the very possibility of a revolution (see the text by Canne-Mejer in this IR).


[1] "... it is not even possible to talk about the class as long as there is no minority within it tending to organize itself into a political party" (Bordiga, Party and Class)

[2] An idea defended by Franz Pfemfert, Ruhle's friend, director of the review Die Aktion and a member of the KAPD.

[3] Micahelis, an ex-teacher of the KAPD and a member of the KAU in 1931, said "In practice, the Union became a second party ... the KAP later on regrouped the same elements as the Union."

[4] In 1925, in Germany there were three KADs: one for the Berlin tendency and two for the Essen tendency. This error, which was a tragedy for the proletarian camp at the time, repeated itself in the form of farce in 1943 in Italy with the proclamation - in the midst of the counter-revolution - of the Internationalist Communist Party led by Damen and Maffi. Now there are four ‘parties' in Italy claiming descent from the Italian left. This megalomania of small groups calling themselves the party only serves to make the very notion of the party look ridiculous and is a barrier to the difficult process of the regroupment of revolutionaries, which is the main subjective condition for the emergence of a rest world party in the future.   

[5] The same Michaelis said in 1931: "Things even reached the point where, for many comrades, the councils were only considered possible if they accepted the KAP's line".

[6] In the same issue of Radencommunisme it says "when there was a wildcat strike, the strikers often brought out leaflets via the group; the latter produced them even if they weren't in absolute agreement with their content". (Our emphasis)