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New book on ‘Council Communism’ August 20, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Left Libertarianism, Libertarianism, Marxism.

Thought this might be of interest to some of our regulars considering the comments on the BICO and SP threads dealing with Marxism, Leninism and the role of democracy and the party in such.

According to an IRSP email bulletin an organisation called Red and Black Publishers in the US has published a book entitled ‘Non-Leninist Marxism’ (Available on Amazon), including the works of Dutch Marxists Hermann Gorter and Anton Pannekoek, the English Left Communist Sylvia Pankhurst, and the German Council Communist Otto Ruehl. I’ll be honest. It’s not my cup of tea and I’d only vaguely heard of ‘Council Communism’ prior to this but I thought some of our Marxist scholars might be curious. Lengthy excerpt from the review follows:

“The book begins  with Gorter’s excellent, systematic refutation of Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, which was penned against the Council Communist tendency and includes Gorter’s essay on why a Communist Workers’ International was needed.

“The one weakness of the book is its selections by Anton Pannekoek, perhaps the greatest astronomer ever produced by the Netherlands and one of the most intelligent exponents of Council Communist. It offers his 1908 article on The Labour Movement and Socialism, which while a worthwhile critique of the reformist tendencies of the trade unions pales besides his master work, The Workers’ Councils, which is not offerred here. Likewise, Pannekoek’s 1918 article, The German Revolution: First Stage, is well worth reading, but his book Lenin As Philosopher would have been a more welcome (if much longer)

“Sylvia Pankhurst is represented by her seven-part article Communism and Its Tactics, which provides a wonderful breath of fresh air amidst the meager politics of reform that passes for Marxism today.

“The book concludes with two pieces by the all too rarely seen German Council Communist leader, Otto Ruhle. The first of these is his The Revolution is Not a Party Affair, which provides an excellent critique of the party as the means for working class revolutionary organizing and then finishes with his powerful Report From Moscow, which is precisely that–a report to the German Communist Workers’ Party regarding his trip to Moscow to attend the third Congress of the Third International, which marked the KAPD’s break from the Comintern in defense of a revolutionary vs. a opportunist line to be pursued in Western Europe. ”

It is believed that 20th Century Fox are bidding for the movie rights.


1. John Green - August 20, 2007

Thanks, Frank. I’ll look out for the book. And the film. I expect it’ll be Dickie Attenborough playing Pannekoek.


2. WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2007

That’s very interesting frank. I’ve always been attracted to non-Leninist forms of Marxism and I’m intrigued as to how this strain distinguishes itself from more anarchistically inclined Marxists…


3. chekov - August 20, 2007

“I’m intrigued as to how this strain distinguishes itself from more anarchistically inclined Marxists…”

Hmm, you can’t really have an anarchist marxism since Marxism and anarchism were the two sides of the major split in the first international. On the other hand, almost all anarchists are also historical materialists and socialists, so much of what is understood to be Marxism is also part of anarchism.

Anyway, as for the councilists and their differences with anarchists, from my understanding, the councilists were essentially a wing of Marxism based in Northern Europe (where there was virtually no anarchist presence) who were arriving at very similar conclusions about many things in relation to the forms of revolutionary organisation. The big difference being that the major councilist and other left-communist theorists were all operating in the midst of revolutions and many of their conclusions are therefore, to my mind, not particularly applicable to times such as ours when there is a very low level of struggle around. They opposed the traditional Leninist concept of the directing position of the party towards the class, which I think is good, but they also were often fairly hostile to formal large-scale organisations such as the trade unions, prefering much more informal and spontaneously assembled councils as means of coordinating large struggles (hence the moniker). This might make a lot of sense during a revolutionary upsurge, but in times such as our own, it’s very much pie in the sky – it’s hard enough to get people to attend branch AGMs in their unions and very few people see their unions as an active break on the class struggle.

As a result of the context-specificity of much of their theorising, those who closely follow the councillist tradition today are very small in number and poorly organised (since they don’t have any effective replacement for the party form and they have little role other than to wait around for the spontaneous revolutionary formation of councils ). They also tend to attract a significant proportion of academics and high-faluting theoretical purists, who aren’t a million miles away from being total cranks. Councilist ideas do have a certain influence among some anarchist groups, particularly in England and Australia, but this tends to lead to an irritating purist sectarianism amongst the anarachists – something I’m not at all fond of.


4. WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2007

So in a way they’re like an almost- but not quite anarchist version of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Great stuff. Thanks for that. A lot to look up obviously…


5. Colm Breathnach - August 20, 2007

Not sure if the Cedars allow links but if you do, heres a link to a related review on the ISN website written by Fintan Lane for Saothar, the labour history magazine.
BTW the ISN would see ourselves as non-leninist marxists to put it rather negatively or to put it positively (perhaps pompously?) as paticipatory socialists..now theres a mouthful! The early council communists/ left communists were spot on in my view but later CC degenerated into dogmatic cultism. Still theres lots of sane groups and individuals out there flying the flag for a revolutionary socialism thats also democratic.


6. WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2007

Hi Colm, we certainly do allow links. Thanks for the link… much appreciated.


7. Brian - February 13, 2008

On the subject of unconventional socialisms, I was recently reading
a biography of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi said he
was a socialist,(see his posthumous book “My Socialism”) but his socialism was based on Tolstoy,
Ruskin,Thoreau and Shelley rather than Marx or Engels.When
he lived in England, he became familiar with “ethical
socialists” such as George Bernard Shaw and Henry S. Salt,which
is probably where he picked up those ideas.

I don’t know of any specifically “Gandhian socialists”,but
I do know in India the “Sarvodaya” movement led by
Vinoba Bhave drew on his ideas to criticize industrial
capitalism in India.


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