Counciliar Power

NOTE: The print edition of Internationalist Perspective inadvertently included an earlier draft of our introductory remarks for this article. Following is the corrected version.

We are printing this extract from a published text by Will Barnes, "Some Remarks on the Role of the Working Class in History". You can read the whole text on his website, Institute for the Critical Study of Societies of Capital The following extract, 'Councilar Power against the State', published here with WB's permission, stimulated some recent discussion within Internationalist Perspective on the councils, the state and some issues concerning the transition from capitalist society to communism. Some of us liked his approach in explaining the crucial role of councilar power in the self-liberation of the working class by contrasting it with state power. However, there was criticism too and so we also publish here a comment made in the course of our discussion that looks at some of the issues with emphasis on the role of class struggle. We intend to go further into these matters.

If you’ve ever been charged with a legal violation and faced a judge or a prosecutor in a courtroom, or spent time in a jail, for you the state has a very palpable reality. If you haven’t, you may think it is an abstraction. If so, it’s a quite real one, a universal abstraction, meaning…

...working class self-activity has patently been the agency that, if only for brief moments, reorganized societies on a liberatory basis (Russia in autumn 1917 until Great Power intervention and imperialist driven civil war destroyed its foundations in an extant working class itself; the revolutionary development of a novel council power in Germany in 1918 until it was drowned in blood by FreiKorps fascists; the revolutionary suppression of a reactionary generals’ coup in Spain in July 1936 with the organizations born from it; the creation, again, of novel councilar power in Hungary in 1956 until it was crushed by Soviet tanks).

Irrefutably councils have sprung up in all revolutionary situations were workers have played a major role: Stretching back in historical time to the Paris Commune (1871), through the general strike in northern Italy in 1904, the Russian revolution of 1905, then in that explosive revolutionary upheaval that shook the world between 1917 and 1920… again in Russia in 1917-1918, in Germany and Hungary in 1919, in Italy in 1920… after that only occasionally and sporadically, in Aragon and Catalonia briefly in 1936-1937, in Hungary in 1956, tendentially in France in 1968, in Chile in late 1972 and in Iran in 1979, in every revolutionary situation in which workers have appeared as a historical class, their agency has been constituted organizationally through councils, the historically distinctive, novel, organizational form of working class power. Elected democratically as mandated delegations, fusing legislative and executive activities, exhibiting none of the irrationality and over-centralization of bureaucratically centralized organizations (whether states or economies), neither narrowly communal nor engaged in an autarchic construction, but instead expansive, integrative and functioning better as they became larger, that is, as more councils federated and assimilated to one another, driven by an expanding worker awareness, based on the global productive matrix that is capitalism undergoing its own dissolution, the councilar form has striven to hold exclusive sway over and tends toward its own universalization as the immediate expression of the power of workers actively dissolving themselves as a particular class in society by bringing together all the various oppressed strata and groups under their wing, absorbing them into the work of a conscious, deliberatively elaborated project of a global societal reconstruction, ending the reign of capital’s economy as an independent, decisive and institutionally separate force in social life, no longer as categories of waged labor for capital but forming themselves as a universal agency of societal change.

The working class has historically set itself apart from all other social groups, strata and classes in history because it demonstrated the capacity to not only challenge the order of society but, asserting its own distinctive and unique form of societal organization, has consciously undertaken to transform and reorganize it in its entirety.

Councilar Power against the State

What are the councils? They can initially be understood by way of contrast with the state, and specifically the existing state of capital.

Unlike much of what we experience in daily life, you or I, we, will never see, touch, hear or taste the state. It is not accessible to our immediate senses, but is quite real. It is an abstraction, a universal abstraction (meaning its reality shapes everyone’s experience), and it is a universally oppressive abstraction (meaning that is limits our potentials, mutilates our experience and exacerbates conflicts within society). The concept of the state put forward here is critical: The intent is to understand it in order to abolish it.

The State and society

The state is a historical reality. It first emerged in its earliest, most rudimentary form within the origins of agriculture and the development of fixed positions in a division of social labor, which went pretty much hand in hand. (It took shape in this earliest form as a body of armed men who protected the person of a divine king and enforced his laws together with a primitive bureaucracy of priests who collected grain and watched over its storage, for appropriation of this wealth, grain, was the basis of kingly power.) But we are concerned here about a highly developed form of the state, its role, function and reality as it appears during the epoch of capitalist modernity as a product of a long history of divided societies (hierarchically organized societies based on fixed positions in a division of labor in production).

Now capital’s state does not consist in the party in power at any particular moment. It is far more than the government at the national level, even though here it finds its most obvious symbols. Instead, the state is formed by the institutions of rule and governance in their entirety, and it operates not only at the top in the person of the Executive but also on the ground in the person of the cop. Each and every form of institutional rule in society… that of territorially based governments within “national” boundaries (provinces, regions, “states” in the U.S.), those of counties, municipalities, cities, towns and even school boards… are one and all dimensions of the state. Why? Because fundamentally the state exists as armed bodies of men, as the socially and institutionalized sanctioned ability to forcefully, if need be, compel compliance with regard to the social relations that secure the extraction, then the distribution, of surpluses originally generated in production.

The modern, capitalist state is characterized by its unprecedented degree of centralization; and, at the same time, by the objectification and alienation of every specific interest created in and through the relations of social classes, by the expansion of its hold over society, the creation of its agencies that maintain that stranglehold, that is, by an objectively illusory independence from society… The state harmonizes these different, often conflicting interests, proceeding in an increasingly more abstract and general way, and in an utterly rarified and completely formalized manner, until, pyramidically, a general interest in the person of an Executive (president, prime minister, constitutional monarch) is constituted… This sham independence is based on the very real existence and oppressive character of the essential components of the state, the hierarchically organized, bewildering array of agencies and organizations, primarily its standing army, its police, judiciary, prosecutors and their structures and places of incarceration, and its stratum of functionaries and bureaucrats. The latter, in particular, form a separate caste pursuing its own interests, interests that institutionally express the requirements of those who rule. The state in this sense, then, is alien to society, and this alien objectivity is rooted in the fact that it is not directly based in the activities of masses of men and women in daily life, that it is not immediately and directly controlled by those same men and women.

The modern state of capital is unique in its institutional and separate character, its appearance as a “public” force clothed in this sham objectivity that sets it apart from and over and against individuals, the underlying social classes, and society at large. While any modern, centralized state may come in the short run to be identified with a specific historical personage, what distinguishes it from states that appear in other past epochs is a seeming efficacy, permanence and reality that render it at once objectively independent in relation to society and independent of any specific ruler.

So we can say that the modern, bourgeois state, as a complex of social relations that have been congealed and hardened (i.e., institutionalized), is set over and against these conflicting private interests, which give it that public, institutionalized and separate appearance. Now the state in this modern form has four general functions. First, it unifies otherwise competing great capitals: It is the domain in which capitalist unity is forged, a unity laboriously worked out through the efforts of professional politicians (a bourgeois stratum itself product of the capitalist rationalization of society), a process that is usually done legislatively (in Congress, Parliament, Diet, Duma, Reichstag, whatever). Second, it is the structure that enforces the general interests of the capitalist class against individual capitalists and their actions (thereby constituting the arena in which a common program for capital is formulated) and, it goes without saying, it enforces these great capitalist interests as ruling class interests against the rest of the classes in society, particularly the various strata and social groups among the propertyless, those who are waged and whose labor in production sustains society. Third, the state guarantees, violently if necessary, the legal and organizational principles of capital’s movement that it legislatively and executively constructs, and fourth, it is mystifyingly and obfuscatorily guards and promotes mass loyalty to capitalist system and bourgeois society as a whole. (Important here are the various medias, spectacular adjuncts to the state propaganda machine.)…

In contrast the councils, an interconnected system of transparent social relations, are a historically novel power, a sole power that immediately and directly holds sway over society without institutional separation, that is, a power that can only develop by way of the destruction and on the ruins of the state…

This can be seen no more clearly than in Hungary in 1956. Since Hungary was a society of the Soviet type, meaning state capitalist, the economy and the state were integrated without any intermediary institutions, such as a sham parliament. Workers in the plants and factories kicked out Party managements, dismantled existing “representative” organs run by active Communist party members, democratically elected rotating delegates to constitute councils within plants, and then in turn formed city-wide workers’ councils. The authoritarian, one-man management born of Soviet war communism (i.e., a historically contingent not a principled basis for organization of work) crumbled immediately and the entire structure of production began to be replaced by a worker created one from the ground up. The statified envelopment of the economy, achieved in the persons of Party activists, was shattered, a novel power in the form of an expanding structure of workers’ councils constituted from below, one absorbing polity and economy, began to emerge prior to the final appearance of Soviet tanks…

The state, this alien objectivity, is overcome, abolished, in a vastly expanded practice captured in the following concise, compressed formulation (which itself is a description of what was unfolding or has actually occurred whenever councils held sway, no matter how briefly): The councils abolish the standing army (which, in part, has historically come over to our side as part of a revolutionary transformation) and other repressive agencies replacing them with workers’ militias and popular tribunals; and, they operate as a non-bureaucratized, non-hierarchical and unitary organ, because they are made up of workers who legislate and execute and who are directly responsible and immediately recallable having been mandated by workplace and neighborhood assemblies, and whose various bureaus and agencies are equally responsible to the council itself and, in the early phases of their existence (i.e., while money continues to exist), held in check to begin by payment of an average wage (as a curb on percolation and corruption). It is requisite that councils refuse the old division of labor within the workers movement into separate organizations, parties and unions inclusive of revolutionary unions so-called (whether syndicalist, or political such as “red” trade unions), which has been the tendency since the collapse of a revolutionary, if productivist, councilism after the early twenties of the last century. Historically, they have only adequately functioned by practically abandoning legislative and executive separation, no matter how many sections or bureaus they formed.

The councils aim at the practical unification of workers to the extent workers are actively engaged in changing all existing conditions of daily life, at work, in the streets and neighbors, in making ourselves master of our own history, a history that, once councils hold sway, can be lived and experienced as part of the woof and fabric of daily life. They, the councils, are incompatible with any other form of power, since they are themselves the organization of society becoming revolutionized. The coherence of the councils, of workers acting in and through the councils, is secured by simple fact that they are the sole power, they do away with any other form of power, especially the power of the capitalist state, that they decide everything. Now “coherence” does not just refer to the activities of workers engaged therein, but also to a socially generalized recognition of the councils’ legitimacy and hence their active capacity to hold sway, not to “govern” or “rule.” In the councils and the assemblies on which they are based in production, in the office, in the neighborhood, no one represents workers, no one is elected to act on their behalf elsewhere (i.e., on the political terrain of the state).

How do councils emerge? The form in the maelstrom of revolutionary events, in the waves of strikes that, increasingly generalized, constitute a direct challenge to capital and, in particular, its state by posing the question of power. But councils do not emerge from out of nowhere or nothing. The form as strike committees, plants, factories, offices and other workplaces create assemblies to come to grips with the immediate problems… problems such as the production and distribution of food supplies and fuel, making provision for self-defense against recalcitrant and counterrevolutionary elements…. Those emerge from a socially generalized upsurge of worker activity, and are at this stage only tacitly a challenge to capital. The councils take shape as an organizational forum embracing the delegates mandated by these assemblies, and it is these assemblies to which they owe their life and on which they depend for their social validity and popular strength: This validity and strength is achieved in activity and enactments by starting from and returning to those mandates, even to the extent of a constant turnover in delegates. Who are the individuals who are the human bearers of councilar activity, who make them up?

They are in the most general sense proletarians, specifically all workers “in revolution,” those who have practically committed themselves to counciliar power as their creation.

In a revolutionary situation, only those organizations that accept the absolute primacy of the proletariat organized into councils in both the transformation and reconstruction of society, and are active partisans in the fight to bring about counciliar-guided change, will be admitted to their presence.

The councils are not unproblematic. They have enemies galore without, but also enemies within. Who or what?

These are primarily the specialist organizations, in particular the parties and individuals who only nominally accept the primacy of workers organized into assembly-based councils in a revolutionary situation and the days 1, 2 and immediately thereafter (i.e., the onset of the transition so-called). It is of paramount importance to identify such specialists, especially the crypto-statists and to treat with them rather ruthlessly (i.e., expel them).

But perhaps the greater problem derives from a growth of inertia within the councils themselves and among counciliar personage. This cannot be put down to the debilitating effects of daily life in societies of capital, because on the face of it at least we are speaking about a revolutionary situation. The counciliar form at any rate should protect workers from these effects, but this is only possible if participants constantly engage in actions that tend toward maximizing awareness of the historic tasks that are being embarked upon: To be sure, then, workers as members of the councils must explicitly need to and intensely desire to transform society, to realize socialism (i.e., in the end, communism), meaning, among other things, that the councils themselves are constantly engaged in critical self-evaluation…

Will Barnes

A Comment on WB’s Text…

WB’s text is ambitious in its scope and engages with highly complex issues – important, critical issues for revolutionary Marxists. Many of his observations I agree with. However, in this short note I want only to argue for the explicit inclusion of the dynamic of class struggle in dealing with both the capitalist state and the problems faced by the workers’ councils in the period of transition. I don’t find this in WB’s approach.

Whatever shared interests various capitalist factions may have for a while, there is an ongoing struggle by those factions inside the state for influence in determining policies affecting all aspects of economic and social life as well as external diplomatic and military activity. The state may sometimes try to mitigate and at other times exacerbate factional antagonisms. At given times institutions of the state may dominate many factions of capital but at other times the state may be unable to defy the most powerful factions. It is essential to acknowledge the ongoing factional struggles – albeit often covert – to understand what is going on. Therefore, I do not agree with WB that the capitalist state harmonizes different class or factional interests, nor that it “unifies otherwise competing great capitals”.

Consider, for example, the Thatcher government’s attack on the unions in the UK in the 1980s. There was a massive attack by the state on the working class – exemplified in the choice of the miners as the primary target - and it was also a real conflict between state institutions and with particular factions of capital. One can see how the situation could be described as the closing of ranks of the bourgeoisie against the working class but, while true, it was also capitalist faction against faction: government against unions and government against several very large industries and the capital interests they represented. Several major UK industries were destroyed, some went into deals with other European and other companies in order to survive but most significant was the growth of the financial services industry. The City of London – which had been strengthening since the mid-1950s – took the opportunity presented by a sympathetic government to favour this industry above all others and it has since become the dominant UK industry. (Industrial manufacturing, once dominant, now accounts for about 12% of UK GDP.) After years of friction between them, the political apparatus of government and the City entered a new, more intense relationship which successive governments of all hues have continued to the present day.

This immense turmoil could be broken down by a functional analysis into several components. Left at that, however, we would have little sense of what has animated the evolution of the actual situation between and within the classes and of the restructuration of capital internationally. Indeed, the changed power relationships between the various sectors of UK capital after the end of the post-World War II reconstruction, and followed in the US and other countries, led to a rash of ‘offshore’ networks of secrecy jurisdictions that have weakened the power of individual states over international capital flows. While commerce and manufacturing need and do take advantage of these banking and financial facilities, they certainly do not want to be taken down by the bursting of the most enormous bubbles of fictitious capital that man has so far devised. Nothing has been done since 2008 to curb the destructive behaviours of the financial industries; there is no harmonisation of interests in the capitalist class.

It is essential to acknowledge class struggle in all its manifestations in a given society. It does not take place only between an exploiting and an exploited class. Marx himself pointed out “that in ancient Rome the class struggle took place only within a privileged minority, between the free rich and the free poor, while the great productive mass of the population, the slaves, formed the purely passive pedestal for these combatants.” (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) In global capitalism today many antagonisms exist between various factions of capital and between them and other classes in society – including proletarians and peasants as well as a mass of humanity ejected from economic activity.

With WB, I agree that after the destruction of the capitalist state the maintenance of the integrity of the councils will be hugely important and all the more so given the magnitude of the tasks that will lie ahead. As well as dealing with its own needs amidst the wreckage of capitalism, the proletariat will have to deal with the vast majority of the world’s population: the billions of people, non-exploiting strata and classes, ejected from or refused entry to the capitalist production process, most living in dire conditions. The task of integrating these people into a communistic set of relations will be the greatest project that humanity will ever have embarked upon.

Earlier in his text WB says that “the counciliar form has striven to hold exclusive sway over and tends toward its own universalization as the immediate expression of the power of workers actively dissolving themselves as a particular class in society by bringing together all the various oppressed strata and groups under their wing, absorbing them into the work of a conscious, deliberatively elaborated project of a global societal reconstruction, ending the reign of capital’s economy as an independent, decisive and institutionally separate force in social life, no longer as categories of waged labor for capital but forming themselves as a universal agency of societal change.” Yet, in his comments on the state WB doesn’t mention these other classes.

Organisationally, the councils will not exist in isolation; they will be part of a class operating in a wider society. The massive numbers of non-proletarians will not be sitting around awaiting the largesse of the workers: they will have needs that will push them towards organisation and this poses the issue of state formation. Just because we have basically one kind of state today – the capitalist nation state – does not mean that early states had only one origin as WB suggests; there have been several kinds of early states and proto-states with various processes of formation. We would do well to investigate these so as to understand better those social forces that tend to push towards state formation and hence consider how the councils can deal with them and maintain proletarian political supremacy.

Asserting that the councils are the sole power will not make them so: there will be a class struggle going on in the period of transition. This will not be the class struggle of capitalism: of exploiter against exploited, of exploiters fighting among themselves for advantage and share, of the brutality of rulers against ruled where ‘social problems’ are dealt with by ejection, torture and slaughter. Such actions are incompatible with the goals and methods of the revolutionary class and its councils.

The class struggle of the period of transition will be centred on the drive of the workers’ councils to reorganise society in a communistic way while the daily problems of the rest of humanity continue to weigh heavily and tend to drag society back towards ‘old ways’.

It is unrealistic today to be prescriptive about what all this will entail but I would argue that taking “all the various oppressed strata and groups under their wing” does not address the issues. It will take all the ingenuity of the revolutionary proletariat to ensure that their ‘good intentions’ are not used to pave another road to hell.


April 2011

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