Trotsky and Council Communism (‘Radencommunisme’, 1938)

Part I.

1. The Question

Among the tendencies that have influence among revolutionary workers, Trotskyism is really the only one with which a serious discussion of principles can be held. The CP, the Stalinist “Communist Party”, usually limits itself to personal insinuations, brute force where it has the power to do so, and parliamentary dodges to gain a semblance of power. Principled, factual discussion is not possible with them.

    The Trotskyists boast of continuing the pure doctrine and tactics of Lenin, which Stalin abandoned. They are still only an opposition and have no power yet; they count on the spiritual power of Bolshevism, which brought about the Russian Revolution; therefore, they have every reason to fight objectively and with arguments. Therefore, the opposition between Bolshevism and council communism today practically manifests itself in the opposition between council communists and Trotskyists. Their opposition is an opposition of principles that can be seriously discussed; and such a discussion can only lead to clarification.

    We shall therefore take up a sentence in which Trotsky clearly expresses his rejection of the principles of council communism. We find it in an article by Trotsky on “Bolshevism and Stalinism”. There he said following up and in reply to the criticisms that Gorter and others had raised against Lenin’s tactics:

The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard. In itself the necessity for state power arises from the insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity. In the revolutionary vanguard, organised in a party, is crystallised the aspiration of the masses to obtain their freedom. Without the confidence of the class in the vanguard, without support of the vanguard by the class, there can be no talk of the conquest of power. In this sense the proletarian revolution and dictatorship are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard. The Soviets are the only organised form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given this form only by the party. This is proved by the positive experience of the October Revolution and by the negative experience of other countries (Germany, Austria, finally, Spain). No one has either shown in practice or tried to explain articulately on paper how the proletariat can seize power without the political leadership of a party that knows what it wants.”  (1)

Here the basic conception of Trotsky and Leninism becomes clear. There is a sharp difference between the small minority of competent and conscious leaders, the “vanguard”, the party on the one hand, and the large mass of workers on the other. In the struggle and afterward, they each have a very different place and very different functions: This vanguard must plan the struggle, set the program, know what it wants and how it will proceed – the mass must follow, trust, obey, and give strength to the actions by its numbers. And that it can and must go only in this way, through this relationship of a consciously organized vanguard and an unconscious mass of followers, is then proven by the example of Russia (and the failure in other countries).

2. Russia and Western Europe

But can the Russian Revolution really serve as an example for the working class in Western Europe and America? The differences, here and there, are far too great for that. In Russia, a barbaric tsardom ruled over a [crude] (2) peasantry of giant size, led by a force of rough and uneducated officials. Only a small percentage of the population were workers, crowded into a few cities with large factories. These workers were still half peasants whom hunger drove from the countryside to the factory, where they then became susceptible to collective action in the form of strikes and demonstrations.

    Intellectuals had waged a heroic struggle against Tsarism for decades, yearning for Western European conditions in which they could obtain a free and respected place in a developing capitalist society. From these revolutionary intellectuals emerged the Bolshevik party, which had adopted Marx’s theory of capitalism and class struggle from the West, spread it among the workers, placed itself at the head of their struggle, and made them (3) a force for the overthrow of Tsarism.

Here we already have the first major opposition residing in numbers. In the countries of big capitalism the working class constitutes the large mass of the population. Here its aim and task boil down to finding its own form of organization, in order to master industry and big enterprise, which it has in its hands, as a planned whole.

    Compared to the large mass of peasants, in Russia the working class itself was a small group. If only for this reason the case of Russia cannot be an example for countries of big capitalism. The same goes for the aim. What it was to be in Russia, the overthrowing of Tsarism, concurred with what had already happened in Western Europe centuries before; the desire was set to a condition of political and spiritual, civil liberty, which has long been realized in Western Europe and America. In these countries industrial development has reached its highest degree of technical perfection; and hence transition to communism is possible.

    Here the objective is therefor the destruction of capitalism that has come to the end of its development. Russia only stood at the very first beginning of this development; there a revolution could only lead to the overcoming of the barbaric primitive rigidity and to taking the road of this development. How can someone arrive at wanting to impose the necessary conditions for the latter on the transition towards communism of technically highly developed big capitalism?

This is not only a question of tools, but in the first place one of people. A mode of production consists of technique and people, classes; what we call the needs and necessities of technical development becomes conscious as thoughts and will in these classes.

    The fact that in Russia at that time and in the West today, because of the difference in technical development, these people, these classes, are completely different, is the main point at issue here. In Russia, there was practically no bourgeoisie; the country was still in a pre-bourgeois stage of development. The workers had no bourgeoisie to fight against and to defeat, only a decayed state power to destroy that collapsed because of the war.

    In Western Europe and America, by contrast, the bourgeoisie reigns, a class as powerful as none before. It rules over all means of production, which, thanks to highly developed technique, have become a powerful world apparatus that is becoming more perfect every day. It is the master of all the wealth of the world, with which it can buy and subjugate everything. It does not consist only of a handful of big capitalists: Behind the big financiers and monopolists who dominate economic life, there is a class of millions of smaller independent entrepreneurs, who fight vigorously to reach the top and become rich by exploiting the workers and by a competitive struggle among themselves.

    And it is not only through this material power that the bourgeoisie rules. In the centuries of its rise and rule, a spiritual and intellectual life, a bourgeois culture, has grown up which permeates the whole of society. This intellectual life is inculcated in everyone through school and the press and has thus become a general mode of thinking: for example, that everyone must take care of himself and build his own fortune, that poverty is the punishment for laziness or incapacity, that achievement leads to the top positions. The fact that this bourgeois spirit still has the majority of the working class in its grip is the main source of its weakness and immaturity. Can anyone seriously believe that a minority group, a “vanguard”, a party of revolutionaries, however enthusiastic and capable, would be able to vanquish this class?

    That Russian leaders could believe this is only understandable because they did not see the problem at all. They thought that the issue in Western Europe was the same as in Russia: to get rid of a few princes, military and aristocratic cliques, and big financiers who were hated by the whole people, and then to put themselves in their place as a better government. The Russian Bolsheviks were ignorant of the internal structure of Western Europe, the essential nature of the bourgeoisie, and its deep-rooted intellectual power. They did not know how much their own doctrine of the vanguard that must lead and control the mass belonged to the bourgeois mode of thought. And the young Western European workers and intellectuals who, awakened and roused by the Russian Revolution, joined the Communist Party were not aware of this either. They assumed that these outstanding revolutionaries, who had destroyed the most powerful empire in Europe, could now also carry out the world revolution.

Today, 20 years later, we see what has become of it; we see that the Bolshevik tactics have been put to the test: the bourgeoisie is more powerful, the workers are more powerless than ever before. It is all the more remarkable that one of the old Bolshevik leaders continues to recommend the same Bolshevik tactics.

    There is only one power capable of overcoming the bourgeoisie: The working class! It is not yet strong enough, otherwise, it would already have won. But that it will grow in strength until it is victorious, we recognize by the abilities which are in it, which have grown in it through society and which will continue to grow by social development.

    The workers of Western Europe and America do not come, as the Russians did at the time of the Revolution, fresh from the primitive world of village communism, still full of the barbaric ignorance and the superstitious modes of thought of pre-bourgeois times. They are the product of centuries of bourgeois development, in which their fathers passed through a school of strong individualism as independent small farmers and citizens. Then, impoverished by the rise of capitalism, victims of competition, driven to the city and the factory, deeply depressed, they learned to struggle in community, the first beginning of their communist education.

    The machine, big business, drills them to act in an organized way; the old individualism is not erased, but they learn to fit in as part of the whole, overcoming personal obstinacy and personal fear. Of course, not all are equal; there are groups of workers who have been exploited for centuries in the same slums of the old industrial cities, so emaciated and oppressed that one doubts whether they can ever free themselves. But the great mass of tens of millions, drawn into it with the rise of capitalism, educated and formed with and by capitalism, is growing, in constant struggle, though in ups and downs, to ever greater inner strength.

If capitalism were a stable, solid form of production, they would conquer their place in it. Now, as capitalism collapses in ever worse crises, as it becomes more and more impossible to continue production appropriately under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, the working class will have to make its organization so strong that it can take control of production.

If we now look once again at the Bolshevik doctrine of Trotsky, it becomes clear that it arose out of and is part of the conditions in which the Bolsheviks found the Russian working class during their revolution. Their mistake is that they want to apply this doctrine to the working class and the conditions in the countries of big capitalism.

3. Vanguard or Rearguard?

The contrast between Trotsky’s Bolshevik and council-communist views is that he divides the working class into a skillfully leading vanguard and the following mass, whereas we believe that it can only be victorious by acting as one close unity.

    But are we not assuming too much the illusion of equality among workers? Are there not such great differences in talent, ability, and character among them that it is impossible for all of them to arrive at revolutionary insights and actions at the same time, so that a small selected band must automatically lead and guide?

    Of course, it is true that workers, like all people, have unequal personal qualities, abilities, intelligence, courage, stamina. The swiftest minds will be the quickest to take up new insights , the bravest will be the first to be prepared for action. They will be the guides, providing insight and council to the others, taking the lead in actions.

    The difference with the degenerated forms of the old worker’s movement is that they will not be professional leaders, that they do not isolate themselves as a leadership group, for whom “leading” becomes a profession with its own interests and who remain “leaders” with means of power, even if they have fallen behind the others in insight.

    Any large group of workers, like the staff of a large enterprise, is made up of people with the most different talents and properties. But they must ultimately act as one body, as a tightly knit unit. They must therefore bring their insight and will to agreement; who understands everything best must convince the others, the most zealous must carry along, the cautious must overcome their fear; as a summary of the action of the economic forces on all these components of the whole, the act comes into being.

Now one may ask: Would it not be better if the most capable, the most far-sighted decide, and the others, who would otherwise only hold back, follow blindly? But then the answer must be: The workers’ struggle is not about one act, not about one leap that must be dared and by which the struggle is decided; it is about continued wrestling, about perseverance and facing ever new difficulties and problems, and thereby becoming mature for the task of fully organizing society.

    In this, the quality of everyone matters always and everywhere; in each case, only as much can be achieved as corresponds to the inner strength of the entire class. It is a struggle for life, for existence itself, which cannot be waged in the good faith that someone else, a wise leader, will already know [what to do].

    The science of biology teaches that in a given species (i.e. also in humans) each characteristic occurs at different degrees in different individuals, an average degree mostly, stronger and weaker degrees somewhat less, and the most strongest and most weakest degrees much rarer. The big mass with normal intelligence, an average degree of insight, ability, courage, and other characteristics determines the course of the worldwide development by the way in which the great economic and political crises affect it and how it reacts to them.

    The bourgeois sociology of the 19th Century emphasizes the great men, the leaders, to whom it attributes most of the progress, and contrasts this small minority of superior leaders with the large mass of the indolent, the simple-minded, the indifferent and incompetent, who are passively subjected to history.

    It will be clear that this way of dividing humanity is only a reflection, and meant as a justification, of the fact that a minority, as the ruling class, subjugates and exploits the large mass. The particularly capable become rich, the incapable mass remains poor. This is not the first and only case that is presented as the result of an eternal law of nature, although it is only a social, and therefore a transient fact. This bourgeois transformation of the biological fact of human differences is also the basis of the Bolshevik doctrine – with the difference that those who are the “best” for the bourgeoisie are the worst for Trotsky. Even his “vanguard” of the best, which leads the incompetent mass and thinks in its place, is in principle and in germ a new ruling class.

There will always be among the workers, as in every class, some who are more gifted and capable, who recognize new conditions and necessities more quickly, and from whom, by propaganda and example, a great driving, revolutionary force on the others can emanate. If these now unite into a group, a party, which organizes itself ever firmer as a vanguard towards the masses, a difference in character between them and the masses will become ever more evident. Especially with the leaders, who then become professional revolutionaries; their living environment, and thus their spiritual milieu. Where the imprint and lack of freedom are very strong, and they therefore have to work much in secret, a conspiratorial mentality develops, as was common in the history of bourgeois revolutions.

    They see the necessity of the revolution very strongly and talk constantly about the revolution, the possibilities for development associated with it appear to them as an almost tangible reality, they try to accelerate development, and then see the unshakable passivity of the masses as something unnatural, as backwardness due to inferior qualities. But these masses live in the real world, they feel the power of capital and their own immaturity directly and instinctively, which cannot be taken away by a few flaming appeals, but only by action and struggle, when this is forced upon them by a stronger pressure from capital.

The “vanguard” thus lives in a world different from [that of] the masses; their difference in thinking and feeling consists not only of becoming aware of the new, growing social reality more or less strongly, but increasingly of the impact of a different reality as well. Such vanguard revolutionaries consider themselves the leaders and builders of the better world of the future they imagine; and if the whole class does not immediately follow, this is one more reason to feel superior to the inertia and callousness of the masses.

    They fail to realize that another process, the process of self-development and self-organization of the masses, is slowly emerging and must emerge as the essential foundation of the new society. They counteract this by their propaganda, which seems to point to a faster, easier way. Thus their doctrine becomes an obstacle in the reorientation of the workers’ movement.

Although at certain moments they can serve as a driving force, precisely because of their bourgeois vanguard theory, they soon lose contact with what is growing as a genuine revolutionary force in the masses. While they think of themselves as a vanguard, they increasingly become a rearguard, unable to follow the real movement of the working class.

4. Theory and Movement

According to Bolshevik doctrine, the workers not only need a vanguard but also a vanguard of intellectuals. In another article of the same Bolshevik-Leninist organ The R.S.A.P. and the 4th International” in ‘The Only Path’ of 13 April 1938) we read the following:

«Lenin has shown that the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose completely independently of the spontaneous development of the workersmovement, that it arose as a natural and inevitable consequence of the development of the ideas of the revolutionary socialist intellect.” Lenin has proved that the theory of scientific socialism has been introduced into the working class by the most progressive representatives of the bourgeois intellect and has to be carried in time and again, that the revolutionary party worthy of its name, also does not emerge from the spontaneous workers’ struggle, but must be consciously and systematically created.» (4)

    This means that the workers surely know how to fight on their own, but the socialist goal and the general understanding can only come from the intellectuals. The intellectuals develop the aim and theory by themselves, without interference from the workers’ movement. Without this theoretical help from the intellectuals, the workers would, as it were, hit out in the fog and darkness, not seeing a goal and not gaining greater understanding. And it is not even enough that Marx and Engels have developed socialist theory once and for all: It will still remain out of reach for the workers, if socialist intellectuals do not propagate this theory among them time and again.

There is always a grain of truth in these views which, though in a very limited sense, becomes a semblance of truth. No one among us doubts the great value and fundamental importance of Marxism for the workers’ movement, of the theory of Marx and Engels. In many cases, the theory indeed was first propagated by intellectuals. But did this theory come to the workers as a gift from the outside, from the world of bourgeois intellect?

    Anyone familiar with the intellectual development of Marx and Engels knows that they began as bourgeois revolutionaries who were then pushed in a new direction by the influence of French socialism and the English workers’ movement. Without the huge class movements of the English workers, the massive strikes and demonstrations associated with the struggles of Chartism, they could never have arrived at their concept of overcoming capitalism through proletarian class struggle.

    That Lenin did not see this was due, first, to the fact that he himself had never taken up this core idea of Marxism – that the ideas for the material world are determined by society and its class struggle – and could therefore believe that new ideas could arise in the heads of intellectuals. And secondly, to the fact that he judged the entire workers’ movement in the light of Russia, where indeed since 1900 the socialist intellect, fed with Western theory, had to bring socialism to the totally ignorant but spontaneously resisting workers.

The emergence of socialist theory is precisely a striking example of the reciprocal influence of practice and theory – how new theoretical insights emerge from the practice of life and struggle, and how these in turn have a stimulating effect on practice. However, they should not be considered as two completely different and opposite things. With today’s extensive specialization of brain work and manual labor, it is sometimes thought that one kind of people, the intellectuals, can only work with their heads, and the other kind, the workers, can only work with their hands. Applied to the movement, this means that one kind only beats with their fists and the other one, sitting in a study, only thinks, theorizes and “directs”.

    In reality, there is no manual work for which the mind is not needed – even if the factory tries to automate it; and no theoretical work is possible without data from the practice. Everyone who works in the workers movement also reflects on it, forms general thoughts that guide his actions; he forms and follows a theory, be it a more or less primitive one. So it is not true that the socialist idea came only from the outside, from the bourgeois intellectuals. In the first half of the 19th Century, it was often the workers themselves who proclaimed communism in independent writings. It goes without saying that in an emerging and growing capitalist society, new ideas, many of them communist and socialist, appear everywhere and in all kinds of circles.

    In all classes – and not only among intellectuals – there are people who take in and reflect on their world with a clear mind, search for the rules and meaning of the development, formulate theories. Intellectuals have the advantage that they are used to working with abstract general concepts and are therefore better able to present general relationships in the form of logically constructed theories and compare them with other theories; but to do this they usually have to extract information from the ideas of others that do not come from their own life experience.

    Of this whole intellectual movement which accompanies the social movement, only the final results, the most comprehensive theories, and their authors, are often mentioned later; and so it seems as if these drew the whole theory only from their heads, and one forgets all the intermediate work of reflection in which hundreds and thousands in all degrees and forms took part. And all these ideas and systems of ideas are then used again in the struggle, gathered from wherever a useful thought can be found; whether it comes from a worker, a schoolmaster, or a scholar is immaterial. It will often happen that a nascent workers movement applies a more primitive theory, that suits its initial understanding, and ignores the much better and more perfect theory which it can only make full use of at a later stage.

The coincidental circumstance that a century ago a genial head like that of Marx plunged itself into the social struggle, already clearly foresaw in those early days the future role of the working class, and could develop such a profound social theory, has made that in later times “theory” has always been presented as a perfect doctrine against the ponderous, difficult-to-climb, and constantly stumbling practice of the working-class movement. This also generates the appearance as if communist theory is offered to the otherwise hopelessly struggling and ignorant working class, as a gift from an alien, different world. In the process, sight is lost of how much this theory was based in its origins on the practice of a mass workersmovement and on a rich literature of new ideas connected with it.

    Had this person not existed, the same theory would also have come into being, but more laboriously, later, in fragments by different persons, not so clearly and beautifully as one coherent whole. Because, continuously, thinking heads deal with the practical questions of their lives and derive theoretical teachings from them, and continuously the workers in their struggle reach out to any teachings they think can bring about clarification.

Moreover, when we talk about intellectuals, we must distinguish two different meanings of this word. We have always spoken here of people with intellect, such as can be found in all classes. But then this is identified with the particular class of intellectuals, which fulfills a certain social function and occupies an increasingly important place, especially in modern big capitalism. In the bourgeois revolutions, the intellectuals as a class have always played an important role as leaders, theorists and spokesmen; for those revolutions also opened up free paths for them in a developing capitalism. They played the same role in the Russian revolution, and here too they fought for their own future as a leading class. Bolshevism-Leninism wants to assign this role to them for the proletarian revolution as well, and for this, the argument must serve that the working class needs theory for its liberation struggle, which can be brought to it only by the intellectuals.

    From this side, the council communists are charged with the narrow-mindedness of suspiciously wanting to exclude the intellectuals. The truth in this is that the council communists very clearly see the difference in social aim that workers and intellectuals, by force of the position and nature of their class, must set for themselves; and that the class aim of the intellectuals boils down to maintaining exploitation and class domination. However, as far as the place of individuals as participants in the struggle is concerned, this question does not arise for council communism. For its fundamental principle is that the workers themselves must decide about all their collective acts and combative actions.

    If the workers would act as executive, powerful fists on behalf of the thinking heads of their leaders, then it would depend on what kind of leaders these were; i.e., that these thoughts cannot, as with for example intellectuals, be determined by conditions of life and interests different from their own ones. But when they do not act on the authority of others, but only on the basis of their own insight, of what they themselves understand and master, then it is their cause to form as comprehensive a picture as possible. Regardless of where the clarification is obtained from, they are responsible for themselves and follow the understanding they have achieved for themselves.

We will return in detail to this question in a following article.

Groepen Radencommunisten (ed.), August 1938.

First published in Radencommunisme, Marxistisch maandschrift voor zelfstandige klassebeweging’, [“Marxist monthly journal for autonomous class movement”] Vol.1 Issue #1, August 1938, by ‘Proletenstemmen’ and ‘Groep van Internationale Communisten’.


Translation from Dutch by H. Lueer, revised by H.Cinnamon, October 2021. Notes by the editor.


1 Leon Trotsky,Bolsjewisme en Stalinisme (De Enige Weg,- “The Only Path” – Organ of the group of Bolshevik-Leninists; April 13 and 27, May 11, 1938 ). English: Stalinism and Bolshevism (Socialist Appeal, Vol. 1 No. 7, 25 September 1937), paragraph: The Political “Sins” of Bolshevism as the Source of Stalinism. Trotsky’s conclusion of this passage has been left out: “The fact that this party subordinates the Soviets politically to its leaders has, in itself, abolished the Soviet system no more than the domination of the conservative majority has abolished the British parliamentary system.” [Editor’s note]

2 Unclear due to a flaw in the scan. [Resolved, 5-11-’21, Editor’s note]

3 Due to an ambiguity in the source, it is not completely clear whether “Marx’s theory” or “the workers” were transformed into “a force for the overthrow of Tsarism” by “the Bolshevik party”. We have chosen the latter option. [Editor’s note]

4 Original title: “De R.S.A.P. en de 4e Internationale”, in De Enige Weg’ of April 13, 1938. [Editor’s note]

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