October 1917, beginning of the proletarian revolution (part 1)

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The bourgeoisie has celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the proletarian revolution of October 1917 in its own way:

  • in Moscow, by parading its thermonuclear weapons and its latest tanks past the mummy of Lenin and a huge portrait of Brezhnev;

  • in the ‘Western’ countries by making a vast cacophony on television and in the newspapers, hailing the ‘great economic advances’ in the USSR, the ‘exemplary courage of its people’ in the fight against Hitlerism — with of course the usual reserves about Gulag, etc.;

  • everywhere by systematically making a travesty of the real meaning of October and portraying the monstrous Russian state as its true descendant. In fact, what capitalism has really been celebrating is not the October Revolution, but its death. The great ceremonies and celebrations all have the aim of exorcizing the spectre of a new October.

For the proletariat on the other hand, and thus for revolutionaries, the memory of October doesn’t require any ceremonies. They don’t need to bury it because for them it is still alive, not as the nostalgic image of a heroic past, but because of the experience it has given us, the hope it represents for the coming struggles of the class.

The ‘homage’ revolutionaries can render to October and its protagonists does not consist of funereal eulogies but of the effort to understand its lessons in order to fertilize these struggles. The International Review has already tried to begin this work ([1]), as have all the publications of the Current, and it is something which must be continued in a systematic manner. But this work can only have a meaning if one understands the real nature of the October Revolution, if one sees it and recognizes it as an experience of the proletariat — the most important up until now - and not of the bourgeoisie, which is the view of certain currents like the councilists. Otherwise October 1917 has no more value for the class than 1789 or February 1848, and certainly less than the Commune of 1871. It is for this reason that the precondition for really assimilating the lessons of October is the recognition and defence of its authentically proletarian character, and of the party which was its vanguard. This is the aim of the present article.

Questioning the Proletarian Character of October

When the revolution broke out in Russia, revolutionaries unanimously greeted it as the first step towards the world proletarian revolution, Already in 1914, Lenin had put forward this perspective: “In all the advanced countries, the war is putting the socialist revolution on the agenda.

And throughout the war he continued to make this perspective more precise:

It’s not our impatience or our desires, but the objective conditions brought about by the imperialist war which have led the whole of humanity to an impasse and faced it with the dilemma: either let millions more men die and annihilate European civilization, or transfer power in all the civilized countries into the hands of the revolutionary proletariat, carry out the socialist revolution.

To the Russian proletariat has befallen the great honour of inaugurating a series of revolutions engendered through objective necessity by the imperialist war. But the idea of seeing the Russian proletariat as a revolutionary class elevated above the workers of other countries is absolutely foreign to us…It’s not any particular qualities, but solely particular historic conditions, which for what will probably be a very short time, have put it in the vanguard of the entire revolutionary proletariat.” (Farewell Letter to Swiss Workers, 8 April 1917).

Exactly the same perspective was shared by the other revolutionaries of that time - Trotsky, Pannekoek, Gorter, Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg. None of them had the idea that Russia was going through a ‘bourgeois revolution’. On the contrary, it was the struggle against this conception which separated them from the Mensheviks and the centrists à la Kautsky. Moreover, history soon showed that such an analysis necessarily led those who held it into the arms of the bourgeoisie and against the working class. In fact it became the position of the extreme ‘left’ of the bourgeoisie in its denunciation of the ‘adventurism’ of the Bolsheviks.

In the whole workers’ movement of the time, solidarity with the fight of the Russian proletariat went hand in hand not only with a recognition of the proletarian character of October, but also with an understanding of the need to generalize the essence of the Russian experience all over the world: the destruction of the bourgeois state and the seizure of power by the workers’ councils.

It was only in the wake of the terrible defeats the proletariat went through in the 1920s, particularly in Germany, and faced with the emergence in Russia of a society which dashed all their hopes, that a certain number of revolutionaries — like Otto Ruhle - began to abandon the position which had been unanimous in 1917. This was the time when ‘National Socialism’ in Germany was mobilizing the population for a new imperialist war, when anti—fascism was doing the same job in the democracies, and when ‘socialism in one country’ — really one of the most barbaric forms of capitalism — was being strengthened in Russia. Within certain revolutionary currents which had escaped the shipwreck of the Communist International, there began to be put forward a theory which saw the October Revolution as a bourgeois revolution of a ‘particular type’.

In 1934, ‘Theses on Bolshevism’ were published in the organ of the council communist movement (Raeterkorrespondenz, no.3 and International Council Correspondence). According to this text:

7. The economic task of the Russian Revolution was, first, the setting aside of the concealed agrarian feudal system and its continued exploitation of the peasants as serfs, together with the industrialization of agriculture, placing it on the plane of modern commodity production; secondly, to make possible the unrestricted creation of a class of really ‘free labourers’, liberating industrial development from all its feudal fetters. Essentially, the tasks of the bourgeois revolution…

9. Politically, the tasks confronting the Russian Revolution were: the destruction of absolutism, the abolition of the feudal nobility as the first estate, and the creation of a political constitution and an administrative apparatus which would secure politically the fulfilment of the economic task of the Revolution. The political tasks of the Russian Revolution were, therefore, quite in accord with its economic suppositions: the tasks of the bourgeois revolution.

Here we find, almost word for word, the position of the Mensheviks, who were among the most dangerous enemies of the proletariat. The only noteworthy difference was that the latter concluded from their analysis that it was necessary to give power to the classic parties and institutions of the bourgeoisie (Cadets, Provisional Government, Constituent Assembly) while the ‘councilists’ argued that carrying out this bourgeois revolution was the task of ‘Bolshevism’.

Why is it that some of the revolutionaries who had greeted October 1917 as a proletarian revolution finally ended up with the analysis of the Mensheviks?

In his book written in 1938, Lenin as Philosopher, Anton Pannekoek clarifies this point. Referring to Materialism and Empirocriticism he says:

It may happen that in a theoretical work there appear not the immediate surroundings and tasks of the author, but more general and remote influences and wider tasks. In Lenin’s book, however, nothing of the sort is perceptible. It is a manifest and exclusive reflection of the Russian Revolution at which he is aiming.

Its character so entirely corresponds to middle—class materialism that, if it had been known at the time in Western Europe — but only confused rumours on the internal strifes of Russian socialism penetrated here — and if it could have been rightly interpreted, one could have predicted that the Russian Revolution must somehow result in a kind of capitalism based on a struggle." (Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher, The Merlin Press Ltd, 1975, p.97).

In brief, the ‘key’ to the nature of the Russian Revolution, which it was not possible to find in the face of the imperialist war of 1914, nor in 1917 in the middle of great class confrontations in Russia and all over the world, nor in the protagonists of the revolution, nor in their methods or their proclamations and appeals to the proletariat of all countries — this key was really contained in a philosophical work published in 1908 and translated into other languages in 1927, somewhat late, because:

If this work and these ideas of Lenin had been known in 1918 among western marxists, surely there would have been a more critical attitude against the tactics for world revolution.” (ibid, p.102)

In fact, the real reason for this late discovery was not that the marxists’ lacked information about certain of Lenin’s philosophical conceptions but the enormous disarray which the counter—revolution had imposed on the revolutionaries themselves, on those rare militants who were attempting to preserve the principles of communism in the teeth of the storm. A disarray and a disappointment which, as we shall see, led them to abandon the marxist method which had allowed the revolutionaries of 1917, including the Bolsheviks, to understand the real nature of the revolution which had broken out in Russia.

Marxism and Fatalism

When one considers it closely, it can be seen that the councilist thesis was a restatement of an idea which had a lot of success in the bourgeois camp itself in the 1930s: i.e. that the regime in Russia was the necessary consequence of the October Revolution. The Stalinists were obviously the greatest defenders of this idea. For them, Stalin was the ‘genial continuator’ of Lenin’s work, the man who developed and applied “the greatest discovery of our epoch, the theory of the possibility of the victory of socialism in one single country” ([2]). But alongside the Stalinists, there was almost unanimous agreement that Stalin was indeed the son of Lenin, or rather that the terrifying state apparatus that had emerged in Russia was the rightful heir of October. The anarchists obviously proclaimed at the top of their voices that the barbaric police regime in Russia was the inevitable consequence of the authoritarian conceptions of marxism (on the other hand they didn’t consider that the entry of anarchists into an ‘anti-fascist’ bourgeois government was the inevitable consequence of their ‘anti-authoritarian’ conceptions). Democrats of all kinds announced that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the rejection of parliamentary institutions were the roots of all the evils that had befallen the ‘Russian people’. In general they warned the proletariat thus: “this is the result of any revolution, of any attempt to overthrow capitalism: a regime that is even worse!

Obviously, the councilist conception did not have the aim of discouraging the working class from any attempt at revolution or of depriving it of its theoretical weapon, marxism. On the contrary, the councilists undertook this re-examination of their former analysis in the name of the communist revolution and marxism.

However, by posing the question on the basis that “if the Russian Revolution ended up in state capitalism, it’s because it couldn’t have given rise to anything else”, they borrowed one of the most fundamental ideas of the bourgeoisie: “what happened in Russia necessarily had to happen”. Either this affirmation was a tautology — the present situation is the result of different causes which have determined it — or it was a theoretical error which reduces marxism to a vulgar fatalism.

For fatalism, everything that happens is already written in the Great Book of Destiny. And when it takes the form of ‘common sense’ garnished with philosophical verbiage which is spouted out by university academics, it always has the function of preaching the acceptance of the existing order, with varying degrees of subtlety. But marxism has always fought against submitting to ‘reality’ in this way. Of course, against voluntarist and idealist conceptions, it affirms that men don’t make history “of their own free will under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under given and inherited circumstances with which they are confronted”, but Marx pointed out quite clearly that “men make their own history” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). Concerning the possibility of a revolution, Marx wrote:

No social order disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.” (Marx, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy)

This is why marxism has always opposed anarchism, for which ‘everything is possible at any time, providing men want it’. In his analysis of the failure of the Paris Commune, for example, Marx was able to point to the immaturity of the material conditions capitalism had developed in 1871. However, it would be wrong to think that all social events can be explained directly by these ‘material conditions’. In particular, the consciousness which men, or more precisely, social classes, have of these material conditions is not a simple ‘reflection’ of them, but becomes an active factor in transforming them:

When a society has discovered the natural laws which regulate its own movement it can neither overleap the natural phases of evolution, nor shuffle them out of the world by decrees. But this much, at least, it can do; it can shorten and lessen the birth pangs.” (Marx, ‘Preface’ to Capital)

Historic events are the product not only of the economic conditions of society, but also of the totality of ‘superstructural’ factors, of a complex interaction between various determining elements, one of which is ‘chance’, i.e. arbitrary and unforeseen factors. This is why one cannot see history as the working out of a ‘destiny’ which has been fixed once and for all, the unfolding of a scenario which has been written in advance — for some by a ‘divine will’, for others in the structure and movement of atoms.

Just as nowhere written that the works of Marx were to justify one of the most barbaric forms of capitalist exploitation, there was no destiny for the Russian Revolution, whose existence can be proved by what the revolution finally became.

Obviously the councilists would not accept that they were fatalists. For them, their position is perfectly ‘marxist’ because it’s based on an analysis of the development of the productive forces. But the fact that they consider only this problem, and then only at the level of Russia (when even for the bourgeoisie the October Revolution was an event of world—wide importance), betrays a narrow, one—dimensional conception of marxism, almost a caricature of it. And it is with this caricature that they claim to be able to explain why state capitalism emerged in Russia: if the October Revolution ended up in capitalism it is because it was itself a bourgeois revolution. In other words, it was ‘destined’ to lead to the conclusion it arrived at…and so we see good old fatalism coming in through the window after officially being chased out the door!

In fact, the councilist view doesn’t just suffer from a good dose of fatalism. If followed to its ultimate consequences, it leads to the complete abandonment of marxism and of any revolutionary perspective.

The Implications of the Councilist Analysis

For councilism, as expressed in the ‘Theses on Bolshevism’, “The economic task of the Russian Revolution was … the setting aside of the … feudal system … (and) … to make possible the unrestricted creation of a class of really ‘free labourers’”. Although it is not really necessary to provide proof, it is still necessary to remember that in 1917 Russia was the fifth largest industrial power in the world; and in so far as the development of capitalism in Russia largely passed over the stage of artisan production and manufacture, Russian capitalism took on the most modern and concentrated forms (with over 40,000 workers, Putilov was the biggest factory in the world). For councilism, the bourgeois nature of the Russian Revolution can be explained by local conditions. This was partly true for the real bourgeois revolutions like the 1640 revolution in England and 1789 in France. The uneven development of capitalism made it possible for the bourgeoisie to come to power at different periods in various countries. This was also possible because the nation is the specific geopolitical framework of capitalism, a framework which, for all its efforts, it can never go beyond. But while capital was able to develop in ‘islands’ within the autarkic feudal society, socialism can only exist on a world—scale, making use of all the productive forces and networks of circulation created by capitalism. As early as 1847, Marx and Engels responded categorically to the question “will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?”:

No. By creating a world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place in all civilized countries … it is a universal revolution and will accordingly have a universal range.” (Engels, Principles of Communism)

It is clear that what had already been grasped by revolutionaries in 1847 had to be, after the period of capitalism’s greatest expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century, the basis of any proletarian perspective at the time of World War I. The war showed that capitalism had completed its progressive task of developing the productive forces on a world scale, that it had entered its epoch of historic decline, and that consequently, there could be no more bourgeois revolutions. The only revolution on the agenda was the proletarian revolution all over the world, including Russia. This analysis was not only put forward by Lenin, that mind imbued with ‘vulgar materialist philosophy’, who is supposed to have wanted to turn the world communist movement into an apparatus for defending Russian state capitalism, but also by a revolutionary whom many have tried to set against the ‘bourgeois’ Lenin, and whose proletarian positions or knowledge of ‘things Russian’ have never been questioned by the councilists: Rosa Luxemburg. As she wrote at the time:

Moreover, for every thinking observer, these developments are a decisive refutation of the doctrinaire theory which Kautsky shared with the government social democrats, according to which Russia, as an economically backward and predominantly agrarian land, was supposed not to be ripe for social revolution and proletarian dictatorship. This theory, which regards only a bourgeois revolution as feasible in Russia, is also the theory of the opportunist wing of the Russian labour movement, of the so—called Mensheviks, under the experienced leadership of Axelrod and Dan. And from this conception follow the tactics of the coalition of the socialists in Russia with bourgeois liberalism. On this basic conception of the Russian Revolution, from which follow automatically their detailed positions on questions of tactics, both the Russian and the German opportunists find themselves in agreement with the German government socialists. According to the opinion of all three, the Russian Revolution should have called a halt at the stage which German imperialism in its conduct of the war had set its noble task, according to the mythology of the German social democracy, i.e., it should have stopped with the overthrow of czarism. According to this view, if the revolution has gone beyond that point and has set as its task the dictatorship of the proletariat, this is simply a mistake of the radical wing of the Russian labour movement, the Bolsheviks. And all difficulties which the revolution has met with in its further course, and all disorders it has suffered, are pictured as purely a result of this fateful error.

"Theoretically, this doctrine (recommended as the fruit of ‘marxist thinking’ by the Vorwaerts of Stampfer and by Kautsky alike) follows from the original ‘marxist’ discovery that the socialist revolution is a national and, so to speak, a domestic affair in each modern country taken by itself. Of course, in the blue mists of abstract formulas, a Kautsky knows very well how to trace the worldwide economic connections of capital which make of all modern countries a single integrated organism. The problems of the Russian Revolution, moreover — since it is a product of international developments plus the agrarian question — cannot possibly be solved within the limits of bourgeois society.

Practically, this same doctrine represents an attempt to get rid of any responsibility for the course of the Russian Revolution, so far as that responsibility concerns the international, and especially the German, proletariat, and to deny the international connections of this revolution. It is not unripeness which has been proved by the events of the war and the Russian Revolution, but the unripeness of the German proletariat for the fulfilment of its historic tasks. And to make this fully clear is the first task of a critical examination of the Russian Revolution.

The fate of the revolution in Russia depended fully upon international events.” (Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution).

This is how one of the greatest marxist theoreticians posed the problem against the sophistries of Kautsky, the Mensheviks and … the councilists. Not only did Rosa Luxemburg put paid to the myth of ‘the immaturity of Russia’, she also provided the key to something the councilists have never been able to understand: the causes of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution which lay essentially on the failure of the world revolution, upon which “the fate of the revolution in Russia depended fully”.

In fact, by searching for the causes of the development of the revolution, and of the capitalist regime it ended up with, in Russia alone, the councilists turn their back on the objective foundations of internationalism. And even if their own internationalism cannot be put into question, in the end it could only be based on a kind of moral imperative. If you take their analysis to its logical conclusion, it leads to the idea that if the revolution had taken place in an advanced country (Germany for example) and had remained isolated, it would not have ended up in the same way as the Russian Revolution. In other words, it could have avoided the re—establishment of capitalism, which means that a victory over capitalism, the victory of socialism, is possible in one country. Just as councilism borrows from Stalinism the idea of a continuity between Lenin and Stalin, between the nature of the October Revolution and the nature of the regime that Russia ended up with, we can see that it also goes close to borrowing from Stalinism elements of one of its most important mystifications: ‘national socialism’. Thus the ‘marxist’ analysis of the councilists not only takes up the thesis of the Mensheviks and of Kautsky: it is also unable to avoid flirting with Stalin’s theory.

But this isn’t the only way the councilists’ analysis leads to an abandonment of marxism. One of the reasons why they see the Russian Revolution as a ‘bourgeois revolution’ is the nature of the economic measures taken from the beginning by the new power. Quite correctly, the councilists see that nationalizations and the dividing up of the land were bourgeois measures. They then rush to exclaim “you can see that this was a bourgeois revolution, because it took measures of this kind”. And against such measures, they put forward a truly ‘socialist’ policy:

the taking over of the enterprises and the organization of the economy through the working class and its class organizations, the shop councils” (Theses on Bolshevism, Point 49). These are the kinds of measures the Russian Revolution would have adopted if it had been really ‘proletarian’; but for the councilists “The bourgeois character of the Bolshevik Revolution … could not be shown more clearly than in this slogan of control of production” (ibid, Point 47).

Here the councilists are not borrowing the foundations of their analysis from Kautsky or Stalin, but from Proudhon and the anarchists. Once again they are crossing out one of the most crucial teachings of marxism. For marxism, one of the fundamental differences between the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution is the fact that the first took place at the end of a whole process of economic transformation between feudalism and capitalism, a transformation which was then crowned in the political sphere; whereas the proletarian revolution is necessarily the point of departure for the economic transformation between capitalism and communism. This difference is linked to the fact that, in contrast to the previous transformation, the transition to communism is not a change in the mode of property but the abolition of all property; it’s not the institution of new exploitative relations but the suppression of all exploitation. This is why, in contrast to previous revolutions, the goal of the proletarian revolution is not the establishment of a new form of class rule but the abolition of all classes; it is not the work of an exploiting class but, for the first time in history, the work of an exploited class. Capitalist relations of production developed within feudal society while the nobility had control of the state apparatus. The feudal power may have been a obstacle to the development of capitalism, but the latter was able to accommodate itself to it as long as capital had not advanced to the point where it had to overthrow the feudal order. The bourgeois revolution came as an almost ‘mechanical’ consequence of the extension of the capitalist economy, and its task was to eliminate the last barriers to the expansion of capital. In contrast to all this, communist social relations can in no way develop by little islands within capitalist society, when the bourgeois class still has control of the state. It is only after the destruction of the bourgeois state and the seizure of political power by the working class on a world scale that the relations of production can be transformed.

In contrast to previous periods of transition, the one between capitalism and communism will not be the result of an objective process independent of men’s wills; it will depend on the conscious action of a class which will use its political power to progressively eliminate the different aspects of capitalist society: private property, the market, wage labour, the law of value, etc. But this economic policy can really only be put into effect when the proletariat has defeated the bourgeoisie militarily. As long as this has not been definitively achieved, the demands of the world civil war will take precedence over the need to transform the relations of production in places where the proletariat has already taken power — and this is true whatever the economic development of such an area. In Russia the economic measures adopted by the new power - notwithstanding the errors that were committed, errors that were real and can teach us valuable lessons — are not the criteria for understanding the class nature of the October Revolution, any more than it was the economic measures taken by the Commune which conferred upon it its proletarian nature — and, as far as we know, neither the councilists nor the anarcho—syndicalists have ever questioned the proletarian character of the Commune. It never occurred to anyone that the reduction of the working day, the suppression of night work for bakery workers, the moratorium on rents or the depots at the Mont de Piet should be presented as ‘socialist’ measures. The greatness of the Commune was that, for the first time in the history of the proletariat, the class transformed a national war against a foreign power into a civil war against its own bourgeoisie; that it proclaimed and realized the destruction of the capitalist state and replaced it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. elected and revocable delegates at all levels, wages for functionaries equal to an average workers wage, the replacement of the permanent army by the permanent arming of the workers, and the internationalist proclamation of the Universal Commune. It was these essentially political measures which made the Paris Commune the first international attempt by the proletariat to carry out its revolution. And it is for these reasons that the experience of the Commune has been such an invaluable source of study for the revolutionary struggle of generations of workers in all countries. October 1917 simply took up and generalized the main themes of the Commune and it was certainly no accident that Lenin wrote State and Revolution, in which he made a detailed study of the Commune, on the eve of October. Thus it’s not by analyzing every detail of what the October Revolution did or did not do on the economic level that one can understand its class nature. This can only be grasped by analyzing its political characteristics — the destruction of the bourgeois state, the seizure of power by the working class organized in soviets, the general arming of the proletariat and the impetus the new power gave to the international movement of the proletariat; the ruthless denunciation of the imperialist war, the call to transform it into a civil war against the bourgeoisie, the call for the destruction of all bourgeois states and the seizure of power by the workers’ councils in all countries.

Because it never understood the primacy of political problems in the first phase of the proletarian revolution, anarcho—syndicalism ended up betraying the proletarian struggle, by diverting it into the impasse of self-management and the collectives while it itself sent ministers to the bourgeois government of the Spanish Republic. Its whole standpoint — and that of the councilists when it falls into line with anarcho—syndicalism — turns its back on the socialist revolution because it localizes it within the limitations not just of a country, but of a region or isolated factories, it reduces socialist production, which by definition can only exist on an international scale, to a domestic matter.

Despite the value of many of the criticisms put forward by the Workers’ Opposition in 1921, in particular its denunciation of the bureaucratization of the state and the smothering of life within the party, the platform of the group was fundamentally erroneous in so far as it reduced the problem of the development of the revolution to an economic question, to the direct management of production by the workers, thus implicitly giving credence to the idea that it was possible to establish socialism in one country, that socialist progress could be made in Russia on its own at a time when the international revolution was going through a series of defeats. ([3])

Whatever errors Lenin may have made, he was quite right to attack the petty bourgeois, anarcho—syndicalist aspects of the Workers’ Opposition. It is no accident that, later on, the theoretical leader of the Workers’ Opposition, Kollontai, took Stalin’s side against the Left Opposition to defend the theory of socialism in one country.

Thus the partisans of ‘socialism in one factory’ join the partisans of ‘socialism in one country’ and the theoreticians of the ‘immaturity of objective conditions’ in Russia. And Kautsky, Stalin and the ‘comrade ministers’ of the CNT are not very good company for the councilists, however much they may denounce them.

In fact, the only way councilism could reconcile its analysis of the October Revolution with internationalism — and certain currents have already done this — would be to consider that the ‘objective conditions’ for the proletarian revolution were not ripe in 1917, not only in Russia, but on a world scale. But this means rejecting the analysis of the Mensheviks or of Kautsky only to take up that of the rightwing social democrats who used it to suppress the proletarian revolution in Germany. It is not a question of saying that all those who ended up with such an analysis are like Noske. It’s quite possible to fight in a proletarian struggle even though you consider it premature and desperate — as did Marx with the Commune. But that kind of analysis by proletarian elements leads to conclusions every bit as disastrous as those of councilism.

We don’t want to refute this analysis here ([4]) since that would take us outside the scope of the article. We will restrict ourselves to a few remarks.

In the first place, such a conception leads to the rejection of the idea that capitalism has been in its decadent epoch since World War I, an idea which was the crucial issue in the revolutionaries’ break with the IInd International. The ‘councilist’ analysis undermines all the theoretical foundations of the Communist International, which is where the Council Communists came from in the first place. It thus leads to the rejection of the main acquisitions of the workers movement during World War I and the revolutionary wave of 1917—23; or else it makes it necessary to base communist positions on completely different foundations, in particular, the positions which the Communist Left took up against the CI:

  • the rejection of parliamentarism, even the revolutionary kind;

  • the rejection of trade unionism;

  • the rejection of the idea of the mass party;

  • the refusal to support national liberation struggles or progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie.

If you reject the idea of the decadence of capitalism, you are necessarily led to the conclusion that all the policies of the workers’ movement in the nineteenth century and most of the analyses of Marx and Engels were incorrect, In such a view, the Communist League, the Ist International and the IInd International were completely wrong to support the setting up of trade unions, the struggle for universal suffrage, certain national liberation struggles, etc. At the end of the day you might as well admit that, apart from the general theoretical underpinnings, Proudhon and Bakunin were right against Marx and Engels; and since from a marxist point of view it’s difficult to separate a theoretical vision from political implications, it would then be logical to take the final step and reject marxism in favour of anarchism. If only the councilists, who see the October Revolution as bourgeois because objective conditions on a world scale were not ripe in 1917, had the courage to take this final step and openly declare themselves as anarchists! They would then have one last problem to solve: how to reconcile their analysis with a theoretical viewpoint which rejects the need for an objective basis for socialism and for which ‘the revolution is possible at any time’?

The rejection of the idea that capitalism entered into its decadent epoch in 1914 has other implications which can be summarized briefly as follows;

  • either the period of capitalist decadence is still to come, although looking at the catastrophes which have befallen society over the last sixty years it’s hard to imagine what the real decadence of capitalism would look like and to see how society could survive it;

  • or else capitalism, in contrast to previous societies, will never go through a period of decadence. Then you must draw the conclusion from this: either you abandon any perspective for socialism or you base that perspective on something other than the objective necessities of society at a certain stage of its development. This means abandoning marxism, making socialism a ‘moral imperative’ — and thus joining up with anarchism.

During the course of its history, the workers’ movement has confronted three main adversaries: anarchism last century, social democratic reformism at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Stalinism between the two world wars. These currents were all banded against the proletariat at a crowning moment of the counter—revolution: the war in Spain in 1936. It must be recognized that councilism, even though it was one of the healthiest reactions against the degeneration of the Communist International and was able to hold to class positions during the worst moments of the counter—revolution, achieved the rare exploit of taking up many of the basic analyses of these three currents, even when its viewpoint did not lead to the abandonment of any revolutionary perspective — which was the case with some of its best elements. These are some of the implications of rejecting the proletarian character of October 1917.



1. See: ‘The Epigones of Councilism’, International Review no.2; ‘The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution’ and ‘The Lessons of Kronstadt’, IR no.3; ‘Platform of the ICC’, IR no.5; ‘Contributions on Period of Transition’, no.6; ‘The Communist Left in Russia’ IR nos. 8 & 9; ‘Texts on the Period of Transition’, IR no.11.

2. Preface to Selected Works of Lenin by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism (Central Committee of the CPSU).

3. See the following articles: ‘Degeneration of the Russian Revolution’, International Review no.3 and ‘The Communist Left in Russia’, IR nos. 8 & 9.

4. See the ICC pamphlet ‘The Decadence of Capitalism’ and other ICC texts.


History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: