Trotsky and Council Communism (‘Radencommunisme’, 1938)

Part II.

In the previous issue of Radencommunisme’ an article was published against the views of the Trotskyists. It was directed primarily against their view that the proletariat can come to power only in the person of its vanguard, and specifically “in the vanguard organized as a party”. Quite rightly the focus was on the differences in social and economic structure between Russia and the highly developed capitalist countries. This difference shows that one can speak of the “conquest of power” for both Russia and the highly developed capitalist countries, but that in both cases one speaks about very different things. In other words, the “conquest of power” in the highly developed capitalist countries covers quite different issues than in the Russia of 1917.

    In what follows we will however look more closely at this famous “vanguard theory” at the hand of the practical course of the class struggle, of what Trotsky calls the “positive experience of the October Revolution” and the negative experience of other countries (Germany, Austria, and finally Spain).

    Before we get to that, however, we must make a confession, because Trotsky so brilliantly demonstrates our emptiness. He says: “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)

    We must confess that we do not know anyone who has proved this in practice either. By the way, it would be interesting to meet such an exemplary class fighter. And as for writing it down, we fail here too. We are just ordinary Marxists. These have no recipe book, but can only point out, based on class relations, based on experience in struggle, what questions the working class will face and what tendencies there are within the working class to solve them.

    But we are also convinced that the working class will always find all kinds of solutions and forms of struggle that no one has propagated on forehand or anticipated. We are thinking not only of the spontaneous formation of workers’ councils but also of the great “sit-down” movements in France and America. Did the patented Trotskyist vanguard perhaps propagate this kind of struggle in France and America? Let them calmly admit that the masses chose this method of struggle without first asking anyone for advice. To explain clearly on paper how the proletariat will come to power is something that only fantasists can do, who know that paper is patient. Only one thing is certain: that the working masses will come to power in the form of councils. But what zigzags the working class will take in the process cannot be estimated in advance. So we frankly admit that we have no recipe book for the conquest of power. But one thing we do know for sure. And that is that it is not possible with this “iron vanguard”, this “thinking head” of the working class. The entire history of the workers’ movement, from the Russian October Revolution to the present day, is a single proof of the absurdity of the views of the “thinking head” to pilot the workers into the right harbor. But it is not easy to learn from the practical course of the class struggle. And many can’t do that at all, once they’ve bought into the idea that they themselves are so terribly conscious and the rest are simply backward.

1. The Positive Proof of Trotsky

But let us now move on to a closer look at the course of the class movement over the past twenty years. Trotsky claims that in the course of the October Revolution (Russia) we have “positive” proof of the working class coming to power in the person of its vanguard, here the Bolshevik Party. Yes, one must dare to do so! For us, the course of the October Revolution is one of the most brilliant proofs that it is nonsense that the working class comes to power in the person of the party. The much vaunted “conscious vanguard” has produced a state in which this “thinking head” performs the function of the ruling state bureaucracy and has the characteristics of a ruling class in everything. The “vanguard” culls the Russian working class in a way that makes the conditions in England at the beginning of capitalism around 1830 look like child’s play. With what bestial despotism the “vanguard” “leads” the Russian masses, one can get an idea of by reading Ante Ciliga’s unvarnished, simply narrative book, “In the Land of the Great Lie”. (2) If the Russian Revolution can prove anything, it is precisely that the working class cannot come to power in the person of the party as the vanguard.

    The new ruling class in Russia, the famous vanguard, is now in the process of disposing of its revolutionary past, for all the older revolutionaries who still remind of that past have been summarily put to the sword. There is no longer any place in Russia for people whose thinking is still connected with the class struggle of the proletariat. For even this proletariat will sooner or later take up the struggle against the “conscious vanguard”. With the steady growth of the masses that became proletarians, not only the power of the new ruling bourgeoisie grew, but at the same time also the power that threatens it.

    Trotsky speaks of a “Thermidor” in the Russian Revolution, meaning that the Bolshevik party has abandoned its revolutionary principles. He wants to hold on to these principles and believes that the party can remain attached to <affiliated with> the proletariat if it is in possession of state power. However, he has never been able to show how such a feat can be achieved. In his opinion, the development that has made the vanguard the new ruling class is due to Stalin’s wrong policies. Such an explanation, however, is not to be taken seriously, for it says nothing other than that history is the work of great men. From this we can only deduce that Trotsky does not want to see, or cannot see, the obvious reasons for this development. Namely, that the vanguard, along with the state power, also takes over its function. It must rule over the mass, and that puts it in opposition to the proletariat, even if it tries to disguise this with all sorts of phrases. Once state power is seized, the “vanguard” has no other choice: it must continue to take measures that strengthen the position of power of the state. And these measures, by their very nature, can only be directed against those who are ruled by the state power, the proletariat, and the peasant masses.

2. Workers’ Democracy

There is no middle way. Even a so-called “workers’ democracy” as demanded by Trotsky cannot change this. This democracy, which does not change the actual command over the political and economic means of the power of the bureaucracy, has even less meaning than the well-known bourgeois democracy, which has no hold on the real position of power of the possessing class either. On the contrary, “democratic” institutions are only created, if they serve to strengthen state power.

    By the way, Trotsky is not known to advocate a democracy aimed at reducing or breaking down the powers and positions of power of the state apparatus.

    Moreover, it is not possible to reduce or break down the position of power of the state by way of the ballot box. This is a question of class struggle. Especially in a country where all economic power is concentrated in the hands of a certain group, even if this group calls itself the “vanguard of the proletariat”, “democracy” is ineffective. This ruling class as well does not step aside faced with the results of the ballot box. If the proletariat wants to liberate itself and realize communism, it must also break down the state power built up by the vanguard. The proletarian revolution is not only pitted against the rule of the bourgeois class but also against the state power in the hands of a party. The liberation of the proletariat is nothing other than the abolition of wage labor, the appropriation of the right of disposal over the means of production and the products by the mass itself, without detours via state power. Bolshevik theory obviously sees no difference between the state and society. To them, control of social life by the state is the same as control of social life by the producers and consumers. In this field, too, Leninism or Trotskyism has not yet got through to Marxism.

    The example given by Trotsky as positive therefore proves exactly the opposite. It proves that also in Russia the proletariat did NOT come to power in the person of the “vanguard”. The positive example only shows how the “vanguard” installed itself as the new ruling, i.e. exploiting class. Of course, we know that the backward structure of Russia did not allow any other possibility. But this does not give anyone the right to claim that in Russia the proletariat came to power in the person of the Bolshevik Party as a “vanguard”.

3. The November Revolution in Germany

Finally, we come to Trotsky’s negative examples. In Germany, Austria and Spain, the proletariat could not seize power because, according to Trotsky, the revolutionary vanguard could not come to power. Yes, this now becomes a difficult case. The question is: who and what is in effect this “vanguard”? Who is the judge of this? How many of these “iron vanguards” and “thinking heads” of the proletariat we don’t already have here in Holland? Each “thinking head” calls the other “thinking head” a muddle-head; when the class struggle intensifies, they call each other counter-revolutionary, and if one of them were in power, it would put an end to the other’s intense thinking with a bullet. For only one big mast fits on a ship.

    In the German Revolution, too, there were several contenders for the role of the “vanguard”, eager to gain possession of power. First and foremost this were Social Democracy and the trade union movement. Trotsky would probably not recognize them as vanguards. But the masses disagreed and elected the Social Democrats and trade union officials to their workers’ councils, and they elected Social Democrats to state power. Trotsky, of course, is of the opinion that the KPD was the “authentic” vanguard. And if it had succeeded in seizing power, communism in Germany would have been assured. However, we reserve the right to doubt this “authenticity”. The first work of the KPD was precisely to fight to the utmost the autonomous organizations of the workers that had emerged from the revolution, the organizations on the foundation of the enterprises. It threw out of the KPD the revolutionaries who fought under the slogan “All Power to the Workers’ Councils” and set about “conquering” the trade unions. It made up for the loss of the revolutionary workers by seeking connection with the left-wing Social Democrats of the USP (Independents). Thus, the KPD already began persecuting the autonomous proletarian organizations when it was not even in possession of state power. Indeed, it is a tempting prospect for the proletariat if this “authentic” vanguard came into possession of all means of power of the modern state. Yet it was also Trotsky who prescribed this tactic for Germany.

    Thus, the KPD was not given the chance to play the role of counterrevolution but had to leave this to Social Democracy. Nevertheless, practice has sufficiently shown where the journey would go under the leadership of the “conscious” vanguard of the KPD. This becomes perfectly clear to us when we bring to mind what the task of a party is, once it has attained state power. According to Leninism, the proletariat is in power when “its” vanguard has seized state power. Of course, it is nonsense that the working class would strike or carry out all kinds of mass movements against itself when it has already seized power. The purpose of the strike weapon is to bring the masses into fighting formation, but once they themselves have become the ruling power in the state, construction, the new organization, is on the agenda. The “vanguard” takes this organization in hand and cannot let itself be thrown off course by autonomous movements of working masses. The restoration of order, i.e., the dissolution of mass movements, is the first task of a party that has come to power. This is true for all parties: After seizing power, the party program must be carried through, and everything that does not toe the line is destroyed as a left or right deviation.

4. The Restoration of Order

When Social Democracy gained state power in Germany, this “vanguard of socialism” began to realize its program, the expansion of bourgeois democracy. To this end, all autonomous aspirations of the workers had to be eradicated. A revolutionary division of sailors, unwilling to submit to the authority of the vanguard and nestled in the Marstall in Berlin, was machine-gunned down, leading to the well-known Spartacus uprising of January [1919]. This was followed in February and March by the disarming of autonomous armed formations of workers and soldiers in Braunschweig and Bremen-Wilhelmshafen under the pressure of cannons and machine guns. The same in the Munich council republic.

    Thus the workers were first deprived of the military means of power. Then the time is ripe for the second phase of the assertion of the power of this “vanguard”. This is the attack on the positions of power that the workers’ councils had seized in the days of November [1918]. What were these positions of power?

    In almost all enterprises, the workers had elected an enterprise council from among themselves, which, although it did not manage the enterprise, took the regulation within the enterprise in hand to a large part. It often decided on the hiring and firing of workers, on the regulation of working hours, and on the wages. Naturally, the entrepreneurs took up resistance, for which they could count on the Social Democratic “vanguard” … of the counterrevolution. They refused to pay the higher wages, and so no money could be taken from the banks for disbursement. Or they closed the enterprises (Hamburg – shipyards) to purge them of revolutionaries. The workers who went to work found the enterprise occupied by soldiers and were welcomed by machine-gun fire when they tried to force their way through the gate.

    The entire year of 1919 is fought out on this front. Strikes and lockouts take place everywhere, and the trade union movement again plays its role in bringing this movement “to a quick and good end”. Together with the entrepreneurs, they work for the complete victory of the entrepreneurs in the enterprise, while the working conditions have to be regulated by collective agreements. These agreements were then made law by the government. And the Enterprise Councils Act of February 1920 puts an end to any autonomous movement of the enterprise councils, by limiting their function to controlling compliance with the collective agreements.

    This liquidated the last autonomous position of power of the enterprise councils of November [19]18. Nevertheless, in March 1920 (Kapp Putsch) and in the Central-German uprising of 1921, the workers tried to regain the lost ground, but without results.

5. In Spain

For reasons of space, it is not possible to describe the course of the Spanish movement. We have done so on several occasions in the P.I.C.. (3) It should be noted, however, that the basic features of the struggle in Spain are very similar to those of the German Revolution. Here, too, the central government, which is in power, subdues all forces that can challenge the power of this “vanguard”. Whenever the militias did not submit to the authority of the government, they are left without weapons and condemned to impotence or decimated at lost posts by the military machine of the fascists. And where village communities and factory managements installed by workers infringe on private property, the central government steps in to put an end to it.

6. Trotskyism as Vanguard

The working class did not take much pleasure in all these “vanguards” when they were in possession of state power. But of course, the Trotskyists don’t recognize these servants of capital as “vanguards” of socialism. Yes, neither do we. We only claim that the workers would not be better off, if a “real vanguard” of, say, Trotskyists were to nestle in state power. Just as the Trotskyists do not recognize the Social Democrats as vanguard of the self-liberating working class, we do not recognize the Trotskyists as such. We are convinced that the Trotskyists, as masters of the state apparatus, would persecute the propaganda for an autonomous class movement just as fiercely as Trotsky and Lenin persecuted the worker’s oppositions in Russia. What reason, then, have we to see in the Trotskyists the “real” vanguard? The fundamental mistake of Trotskyism is that it has no idea of the challenges facing the highly developed capitalist countries. We have learned this from the rise and fall of the German Revolution. The emergence and activity of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Germany gave us a picture, albeit a very incomplete one, of the spontaneous organization of the working masses and of the difficulties they faced. They constituted active political bodies like enterprise units, army formations, or in whatever way real life brought them together as a functioning social body under their own direct leadership. And these organizations, which directly embodied the power of the masses, began to associate into a single body of councils at the local and national levels. That is, they aimed to bring all social life under their direct leadership and management.

    The working masses did not get that far. Trotsky seeks the cause in the fact that a conscious vanguard could not seize power. But these magic formulas are of no use to us! It should have been clear to everyone that the inner strength of the masses did not go beyond ending the war and eliminating the military regime. On the immediately following question of whether political power should be exercised by either the workers’ and soldiers’ councils or by a party or by a parliamentary government, the masses were divided. And when it came to eliminating capital ownership in economic life by placing the leadership over production in the hands of the enterprise councils, the majority of the mass was foreign to it, while another part wanted to TRANSFER IT TO THE STATE. In other words, the consciousness of their class task was not yet sufficiently present. The questions of communist organization were only raised for the first time, and directly in their practical form, in the enterprises themselves and in the political struggle organizations of the workers’ councils.

    The Trotskyists and Leninists will not deny all this. But they believe that this unconsciousness will always be so. The mass does not know what it wants, but the party does. And therefore, the party must lead the struggle, and it must do so by managing the state and economic life.

    But here they get into an insoluble contradiction. That is to say: The “vanguard”, claims the leadership of social-political and of economical life in the name of the insufficient degree of consciousness of the masses. The workers cannot yet do it themselves, so the vanguard will do it. Translated into the language of economy, this means that labor must still appear as wage labor because the masses cannot yet master social life themselves without the detours of the state. Therefore, it is self-evident in Trotskyist thought that wage labor must be preserved at least immediately after the party seizes power! This is the direct consequence of their conception of the “insufficient cultural level of the mass”, as Trotsky calls it. Right! Thus we know exactly where we are at. It means that the propagandists of an autonomous class movement today are “left phrase threshers, and when the “vanguard” is in power, they are called dangerous counter-revolutionaries who must soon be eliminated. Because, after all, an autonomous class movement is not historically possible?

    Seen from the line of development of the working class in the last 20 years, which by trial and error points in the direction of the autonomous class movement, Trotskyism already (or still?) lags behind many revolutionary workers in class consciousness. A fact that we could also observe in the German revolution with that other “vanguard”, the KPD. First in the Russian, then in the German revolution, the masses began to struggle autonomously for the first time on a large scale, and in the following years, this process continues in the wild movements all over the world. Certainly, the class consciousness of the masses is still far from being deep enough to act as a close whole. But this deficit cannot be supplemented by a vanguard. And so these masses will continue to struggle on their own until they have freed themselves from the old notions of leaders and vanguards taking away their task. The ultimate aim of the class action is to abolish the class division in society. The political power that the “vanguard” seeks, in Trotsky’s sense, leads to the re-establishment of a class rule exercised by the vanguard. The slogan “All Power to the Workers’ Councils” is therefore diametrically opposed to the slogan “Political Power into the Hands of the Vanguard”. The one excludes the other. The task of a real vanguard of the proletariat cannot be to try to take over the function of the masses, but to do everything that strengthens the consciousness of the whole class, that deepens its insight into its task, the autonomous management of the whole social life; in a word, the task of a real vanguard is to want no power for its own organization, but to place itself entirely at the service of the slogan: All power to the workers’ councils.

Groepen Radencommunisten (ed.), September 1938.

First published in Radencommunisme, Marxistisch maandschrift voor zelfstandige klassebeweging’, [“Marxist monthly journal for autonomous class movement”] Vol.1 Issue #2, September 1938, by ‘Proletenstemmen’ and ‘Groep van Internationale Communisten’.


Translation from Dutch by H. Lueer, Revised by H.Cinnamon, November 1, 2021.


1 See footnote 1 of part I. [editor’s note]

2 Published in 1938 in French with the title Au Pays du Grand Mensonge. An extract in English can be read with M.I.A.: In Stalin’s prisons. [editor’s note]

3 P.I.C.: Persdienst van de Internationale Communisten (Press Service of the International Communists) [editor’s note]

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