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Workers' Councils and the Revolutionary Party

By: 
James Clark

January 1, 2003

Marxism No. 1, 2003
 
The workers’ council is the essential institution of a working class movement that seeks to replace capitalism. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to describe exactly what a workers’ council is, how it works and how it develops, is to contrast its forms of democracy to the so-called democracy we live under today. Consider, for example, the bourgeois democracy that exists in Canada in the form of parliament, apparently one of the highest forms of democracy currently on offer in the world.
 
First of all, our current system espouses the notion of ‘political equality’. The idea goes that since we all have just one vote each, we all wield the same amount of power in the democratic process. By such reasoning, any average person’s vote in the last election carried the same weight as Kenneth Thompson, the richest person in Canada. Perhaps it did. But was there an equal share of influence on the outcome of the election? Obviously not. The wealth and influence of the tiny ruling class — whether through its control of the media, its economic leverage, or its political access to government — far outweighs the power of the average person’s single vote. Political equality is meaningless unless there is economic equality, which does not exist under capitalism.
 
Secondly, there is the notion of accountability. Politicians must always be wary of the voter, or so the saying goes. The behaviour of most politicians suggests otherwise. Do we have the right to recall MPs or government leaders immediately who act outside our interests? Were Toronto residents able to sack the city’s mayor Mel Lastman, after his racist comments about Africa? What about politicians whose campaign promises land in the dustbin the day after the election? Can we turf the BC Liberals following their attacks on unions and public services? The democracy on offer today allows us at best thirty seconds in a ballot box every four or five years to decide on a list of candidates who are usually wholly unsatisfactory. Then we have no other choice but to leave all the decision making to those who are in office until the next election.
 
Following on the second point is the complete removal of politics from everyday life in our current system. “Politics” is apparently what happens in Parliament during question period, or what gets discussed by specialists and experts on royal commissions or parliamentary sub-committees. How democratic is that? What about the unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy of civil servants and judges? Who elects the chief of police? Did Canadian voters have any say in the decision to send troops to Afghanistan? Hardly.
 
Consider how the country is divided up into constituencies based on geography. How is it possible to consider our collective class interests if voting is entirely separated from our place of work? Such organization encourages us to see ourselves as an undifferentiated whole who apparently share the same national interest, rather than as workers who have nothing in common with the bosses and their backers in the capitalist class.
 
Now imagine a system of democracy where all of this is reversed.
 
Imagine if we lived in a system where political equality was matched with economic equality — where no one tiny group owned and controlled all the wealth, and used it to advance its own interests at the expense of everyone else.
 
Or imagine if we could immediately turf out any of our leaders who break their promises and sell us out. The moment our representatives act outside our demands, we replace them with others with a better commitment to genuine representation. Imagine if we were involved every day in all the political debates that shape our lives where we ourselves can make the decisions that affect us most. Imagine being able to decide what we are going to produce in our workplaces, how to produce it, and how to distribute it. Imagine making the police force accountable for its behaviour. Or deciding for ourselves what a criminal act really is — like systematically driving people into poverty and on to the streets.
 
This kind of democracy is not a dream. This is the democracy of the workers’ council that workers throughout this century, in countries all over the world, in periods of political and economic crisis, created out of their own ingenuity as they tried to meet the immediate needs of the struggle.
 
Workers’ Councils in Russia
 
The first workers’ council appeared in Petrograd in Russia during the revolution of 1905. None of the revolutionary organizations which were active at the time saw it coming, and were confused about its significance in creating power for the workers.
 
The 1905 revolution began when Russian troops attacked a peaceful demonstration outside the Tsar’s Winter Palace. The Petrograd soviet (the Russian word for council) grew out of a meeting where workers attempted to organize and coordinate a general strike. In other words, it met the spontaneous demands of Russian workers for mass organization. In just three days, it brought together 226 delegates — each representing 500 workers — from factories all over the city.
 
According to Leon Trotsky, Russian revolutionary and elected president of the Petrograd soviet, the council developed,
 

As a response to an objective need — a need born of the course of events. It was an organization that was authoritative and yet had no traditions, which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control — and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.1

 
The soviet’s appearance was unique to Russian history. Before it, the only mass workers’ organizations were the Social Democratic parties, which were voluntary organizations that represented a particular political perspective. The soviets, however, represented all the workers despite their varied political views, in each of the workplaces where they were based. As soviets grew up in every factory and began to coordinate on a city wide scale, they demonstrated the potential to represent the entire class.
 
The revolution of 1905 was eventually crushed, but the ruling class could not wipe from the memory of Russian workers their experiment in workers’ democracy. The soviets appeared again in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The February revolution began with a strike against victimization at the Putilov engineering works in Petrograd, and the demand for bread that was raised by working class women. The demonstrations on February 23 led to confrontations with the army, in which many soldiers joined the side of the workers. Five days later, Tsarism was toppled and two new sources of power emerged: the provisional government, representing capitalism and the remnants of the state, and the soviets representing the new democracy of workers’ power.
 
But there was a difference between 1905 and 1917 regarding the scope of power of the soviets. Rather than simply organizing and coordinating a general strike like in 1905, the soviets — now armed in anticipation of military repression — were capable of challenging their class enemy for power. By June of 1917, there were over five hundred soviets in cities all across Russia.
 
The situation now at hand — two competing forms of government — is what Marxists describe as ‘dual power’. Again, Trotsky explains:
 

The political mechanism of revolution consists of the transfer of power from one class to another. The forcible overturn is usually accomplished in a brief time. But no historic class lifts itself from a subject position to a position of rulership suddenly in one night, even though a night of revolution. . . The historic preparation of a revolution brings about. . . a situation in which the class which is called to realize the new social system, although not yet master of the country, has actually concentrated in its hands a significant share of the state power, while the official apparatus is still in the hands of the old lords. That is the initial dual power in every revolution.2

The situation of dual power is incredibly precarious. The ruling class will do all it can — whether through coercion, brute force, or a combination of both — to restore power in its own hands. This includes taking advantage of reformist ideas held by many workers to convince the soviet delegates themselves to give up their power to an alternate ‘legitimate’ government.
 
The parties that initially held sway over workers during the first few months of the revolution were the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). While radical in words, these parties were committed to challenging the old system of Tsarist rule, but opposed to a complete transfer of power to the working class. In Petrograd, for example, the Menshevik-SR coalition had almost the full support of the 2,800 delegates to the soviet plenary. The Bolsheviks, committed to workers’ power, initially had the support of only 65 delegates.
 
The Menshevik-SR coalition took advantage of this strength to try to surrender soviet power to the provisional government, which aimed to establish the Constituent Assembly, or a bourgeois democracy. The Menshevik-SR coalition had no faith in the ability of workers to run society for themselves.
 
But there was a contradiction. Although many workers initially held reformist ideas and supported the call for the Constituent Assembly, they increasingly recognized in practice that only revolutionary activity and politics could deliver the reformist demands. Consequently, the Bolsheviks — which had both political clarity and revolutionary practice rooted in the working class — began to win more and more support.
 
Lenin forcefully argued among the party members about what was really at stake in the soviets, and dispelled any illusions in class collaboration that the February revolution may have fostered:
 

The basic question of every revolution is that of state power. Unless this question is understood. . . there can be no intelligent participation in the revolution.3

 
Lenin continued:
 

What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralized state power.4

 
The discussion and debate that ensued within the Bolshevik party eventually produced the clarity it would need to win the support of the mass of the working class. By May and June of 1917, the Bolsheviks had won hegemony within the soviets. The politics put forward by the Bolsheviks and the activity among workers in which they engaged, particularly the economic struggles among unskilled workers, were crucial to the survival of the soviets and the success of the revolution.
 
Revolutionary Party and Workers’ Councils
 
This raises the question of the role of the revolutionary party and its relationship to workers’ councils.
 
Because the councils serve to represent all workers at the workplace, or the point of production, they have the capacity to bind the entire class together into one unit that can act collectively in its own interests. The objective position workers occupy in a capitalist economy as producers of all society’s wealth means that only they have the potential to transform society and bring about radical social change. But such a task by no means occurs automatically.
 
Because the councils represent all workers, it also follows that a variety of political perspectives exist within them. The questions of strategy and tactics that are continually posed in the midst of revolutionary struggle require the clearest politics possible combined with revolutionary activity.
 
This is where the revolutionary party steps in. The Bolsheviks recognized the need for political organization well before the revolution, as a place where the most advanced section of workers could generalize from the political lessons of the past and present, both victories and defeats. The revolutionary party operates like a school, what Lenin referred to as a university of the working class, where a theoretical framework can be developed to navigate strategy and tactics through the ups and downs of any revolutionary struggle. Formed years in advance of the revolution, the Bolsheviks were able to lay the groundwork for organization well ahead of the emergence of a revolutionary period.
 
This is not to say that the party simply invents its own plans and imposes them on the class. Marxism is a method whereby revolutionaries learn from the class and its struggles to resist. Those lessons are then generalized and tested in practice. The party, besides seeking political clarity in theoretical debates, also had to root itself in the working class and every one of its struggles — whether this is in the fight for better wages in a single factory or a mass campaign for peace right across the country.
 
It was only in the process of struggle fighting alongside the mass of the working class, that the Bolsheviks earned the right to lead. Political clarity and revolutionary activity proved the Bolsheviks’ methods in practice to be the most effective. Eventually more and more workers within the soviets either joined the Bolsheviks or supported them. This was initially expressed in the factory committees which sprang up in reaction to the failure of the Menshevik-SR leadership in the soviets to meet their demands. But the influence of the Bolsheviks eventually spread in the soviets, as the working class increasingly shared or supported the revolutionary politics required fully to seize power from the provisional government and establish a workers’ state.
 
An example of why revolutionary leadership is absolutely crucial to both the survival of the soviets and the revolution itself came during what has become to be known as the “July Days” of 1917. Although the vast majority of workers in Petrograd were ready for insurrection and to seize power from the state, the rest of the workers in the country were not.
 
The Bolsheviks, for the most part, recognized that any provocation with the provisional government could possibly isolate the more militant Petrograd soviet, if the delegates demanded prematurely that the rest of the country rally to their support. The Bolsheviks argued for restraint; and although they did not win every debate, eventually they won enough workers in Petrograd politically to avoid a direct confrontation with the Provisional Government until the rest of the workers across Russia had radicalized to the same extent.
 
Although the “July Days” severely strained the relationship of the soviets to the movement that created it, the decision by the Bolshevik leadership to restrain the Petrograd delegates allowed the soviets to regenerate themselves and build a wider base of unity.
 
The political legitimacy and authority that the Bolsheviks earned and won in the factory committees and soviets — through clear politics and revolutionary activity — allowed them to grow dramatically and to organize the successful October insurrection, based on a united, mass movement. This established for the first time a genuine workers’ state. Such legitimacy and authority represented the democratic will of the vast majority of workers who participated fully in the soviets.
 
But the experience of workers’ councils was not exclusive to Russia. Throughout the history of the twentieth century, workers’ councils of one form or another have emerged from periods of crisis in countries all over the world, created by workers themselves as they attempted to meet the immediate demands of their struggle.
 
Red Capitals
 
Three “red capitals” — where workers’ councils emerged to varying degrees — developed immediately following the period of the Russian Revolution in 1917: Glasgow, Berlin, and Turin. Only a brief examination of these examples will be possible here in light of the breadth and scope of their political history. Nevertheless, the three examples of the “western soviets”, as Donny Gluckstein describes them, demonstrate how effective the workers’ councils were in combining the class together in mass struggle and pushing the struggle closer to revolution.5
 
Despite the dramatically varying circumstances in which each of the councils emerged, the western soviets shared one obstacle in common that distinguished them from the Russian experience: the political and ideological strength of reformism. Because of the late but rapid and uneven development of capitalism in Russia, the traditional reformist institutions such as trade unions, a trade union bureaucracy, and mass labour parties tied to both, were weak or absent. The incredible repression of the Tsarist regime against any form of organization, and the rapid transition from semi-feudal to capitalist social relations played a role here. Consequently, Russian workers moved very quickly past reformism and into revolutionary struggle.
 
In the west, however, the situation was different. Even in Turin, where workers were not nearly as swayed by a belief that capitalism could fundamentally be reformed in their interests as their counterparts in Glasgow and Berlin, reformism in the guise of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGL) nevertheless played a decisive role in constraining revolutionary struggle. This is not to suggest that Russia is the exceptional model in terms of the emergence of workers’ councils, and that western workers foolishly attempted to copy the Russian model and apply it to their own circumstances.
 
Workers’ councils cannot be created by a mere act of will. They emerge during periods of economic or political crisis as workers search for new organizational methods of resistance when the old methods fail them. The principal difference between the soviets that emerged in Russia and those that emerged in Glasgow, Berlin, and Turin was the nature of the struggle that spawned them in the first place. What distinguished the Russian situation was not fundamentally an expression of objective circumstances, but of the subjective factor, the specific relationship of organized revolutionaries to the mass of the working class and the form of workers’ consciousness that was expressed in the concrete local circumstances.
 
In Russia during the 1905 revolution, economic demands initiated the revolution which saw the soviet appear for the first time. By the time the Tsar had been toppled in February 1917, when the situation of dual power emerged, the demands were political — initially the demand for a Constituent Assembly. Russian workers challenged the arguments among reformist leaders as they developed the confidence to govern in the name of the working class within the soviets.
 
In contrast, workers’ councils in the west emerged as a result of the failure of the trade union leaderships to act on the economic demands of the workers at the base. In Glasgow, for example, in early 1915 the “Central Labour Withholding Committee” evolved as a sort of permanent strike committee that attempted to unite workers in the engineering sector fighting for a wage increase. This purely economic demand quickly became a political demand because of the context of World War I. Any interruption in arms production, according to the Munitions Act, would be branded treason. The “Clyde Workers’ Committee” which emerged in response to the Act could identify its origins in a political issue.
 
The only reason the committee was successful in the first place is that there was originally a combination of left politics with shop floor activity. Even though most workers supported the war, they could eventually be won to an anti-war stance. Leaders such as Willie Gallacher, James Messer, and Arthur McManus organized militant actions over economic issues that opened up space for political discussion and debate. The credibility and trust such leaders developed through fighting economic demands meant that workers would give them a hearing on political ones.
 
Through a period of strikes and industrial action, a tighter network of rank and file activists from the shop floor developed, spanning the engineering industry of the area. Although the network never achieved the level of class organization seen in the Russian soviets, it nevertheless sowed the seeds for an embryonic workers’ council that might have developed more fully had the subjective conditions been present.
 
The Clyde Workers’ Committee was ultimately defeated and the workers isolated. One of its most important contributions to the struggle for socialism in Britain, however, is the lesson that socialist politics belong inside the industrial struggle. Socialist, and later anti-war leader, John MacLean developed a strategy to put forward economic demands that would force the government to reveal the broader political relevance of the war and thereby expose the implications of the government’s pro-war stance.
 
The subjective condition that was lacking in such a strategy was a revolutionary organization rooted in the working class, one that could generalize a common perspective, build links with workers outside the section of the engineering industry, and build a broad anti-war movement well outside of Glasgow. Although a fully fledged workers’ council failed to emerge, the lesson to be drawn is the absolute necessity of a revolutionary organization that can link the struggle at the factory with the broader struggle against the state.
 
In Berlin, although the German context was quite different, workers also combined in increasingly well organized rank and file networks in response to the reformist institutions which had failed to meet their economic demands.6 Because such a network developed before the war, it was well placed later to develop into workers’ councils. And because activists within the shop steward organization, the Obleute, had won credibility among the rank and file in a variety of economic disputes, is leadership could eventually call outright political strikes against the war with mass working class support.
 
The German revolution broke out in 1918 and soon brought about the fall of the Kaiser. Like in Russia, a situation of dual power emerged in which revolutionary politics was key to the survival of workers’ councils. These spread all over Germany by 1919, although never reaching the same level of radicalism as in Berlin. But the essential combination of politics and economics did not come together in the revolutionary camp within the German left in time to seize the opportunity for securing workers’ power; when it did, it was too late. The massive German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had historically perpetuated a divide between political theory and socialist practice, focusing on political work on the electoral front while leaving economic work to the unions.
 
On the one hand, the active Obleute had deep roots among the rank and file in the unions and an excellent history of agitation for economic demands. But it lacked the political clarity and broader political perspective possessed by the Spartakists, the revolutionary wing of the German left, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt. On the other hand, the Spartakists have been described as a head without a body, because they lacked the roots within the working class where the political lessons required for the advancement of the revolution could be generalized and tested in practice.
 
Although the Spartakists eventually recognized the need for a revolutionary party that could both root itself in the movement and provide an independent political current within it, they had only formed as an independent revolutionary grouping as a break from the reformist SPD during the revolutionary wave. Later, they were part of a regroupment that formed the German Communist Party (KPD). But the party could not grow and develop fast enough to influence the struggle towards the winning of workers’ power.
 
The situation in Turin was somewhat different.7 Like Petrograd, Glasgow, and Berlin, the city had experienced a rapidly developing industrial sector. Turin’s experiences with workers’ councils only came after the end of the war, and after the development of workers’ councils in other cities. This meant that the Italian working class could draw on the lessons from just a few years earlier as it encountered similar experiences as the level of workers’ struggle increased.
 
The most important leading figure among Turin’s working class was Antonio Gramsci. He attempted to build a workers’ council movement out of the internal commissions and rank and file networks that developed in Turin’s factories. However, the political traditions in Turin were fragmented, with an unorganized and often volatile anarchist movement on one side, and a conservative history of reformist socialism on the other.
 
Despite its militant and often revolutionary rhetoric, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) tried to keep a leash on workers’ struggle and passively acquiesced to the state’s demands on workers during the war. The failure of the bureaucrats to represent workers’ interests, combined with the failure of anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist tendencies consistently to win real demands for workers, provoked a crisis of leadership in the working class. In response, a vibrant rank and file network developed across the whole of Turin that often usurped the unions’ leadership in the struggle.
 
The conditions that led to what is known as the Biennio Rosso — the two “red years” from 1919 to 1921 — came out of the harsh repression of the Italian state on workers during and immediately after the war. This was despite Italy’s declaration of victory in the war. Many workers who returned from the war had been radicalized by the news of the Russian Revolution. They expected to see real gains for the working class after having made so many sacrifices. The militant response of Italian workers from 1919 to 1921 saw over one million workers on strike each year with a wave of factory occupations sweeping all of Italy.
 
Despite the strength of the rank and file networks in Turin, and despite the gains workers won in the factories, the workers’ council movement never really took root across the entire country. The revolutionary fervour was met by massive repression, as the employers sought to wreak their revenge. Italy became the first state to experience a fascist government. The movement in Turin was eventually isolated politically and militarily. Mussolini’s “March on Rome” would follow in 1922.
 
Besides the strength of reformism in general, the most obvious weakness of the movement in Italy was the concentration of struggle in individual factories or workplaces. Although the Italian state had a well established history of repression, it remained weak in the minds of many workers who saw control over production in their workplaces as the most important struggle. Sectionalism became one of the major barriers to spreading the rank and file networks across all of Italy, or even within the same city across sectors. By focussing too much on issues related to the immediate conditions of individual workplaces, workers failed to generalize the lessons of struggle more broadly and to coordinate actions on a national scale. In fact, in early 1920 the newly formed workers’ council movement in Turin was so caught up with settling wage scales for the engineering employers that they gave little or no attention to general strikes unfolding in other cities where solidarity could have been built on a national scale.
 
Another obstacle was the failure to recognize the role of the state and how to seize power from it. Many workers saw the factory owners as the real enemy because of the size and concentration of industry in so few hands. No real strategy was ever developed to address the role of the state in defending and supporting capital’s interests; when there was an effort to determine a political alternative, it was too late to generalize the lessons and influence the outcome of the struggle.
 
Through a series of debates, Gramsci eventually concluded that there was a need for a revolutionary party to organize on the terrain of the workers’ councils and to provide a political leadership, based on the generalized lessons of workers’ experiences, to push the council movement forward. The party would also be the mechanism that could drive towards uniting the rank and file networks across the country. He wrote:
 

The party must acquire its own precise and distinct character . . . the party of the revolutionary proletariat in its struggle to achieve a communist society by way of the workers’ state — a homogenous, cohesive party with a doctrine and tactics of its own, and a rigid and implacable discipline. The leadership, by constantly keeping in touch with the sections, must become the motor centre for proletarian action in all its manifestations. The sections must promote the formation of communist groups in all factories, unions, cooperatives and barracks. . . and so become the trusted elements from whom the masses will delegate to form political soviets and exercise the proletarian dictatorship. The existence of a highly disciplined communist party. . . is the fundamental and indispensable condition for attempting any experiments with soviets.8

 
Gramsci tried to spread the argument among workers through his paper Ordine Nuovo but lacked the roots in workplaces outside of Turin to make his strategy effective. His attempts to build a revolutionary organization to complete such a task could not keep up with the rapidly rising demands of the struggle.
 
Workers’ Councils and History
 
As history clearly shows, the workers’ councils were, by no means, exclusive to the Russian experience in 1917. But it is also worth noting that workers’ councils were and are not exclusive to the historical period immediately following the Russian Revolution or in periods of war generally.
 
By the 1930s, Russia was no longer an inspiration for workers internationally to form their own self-governing political councils, but a bureaucratic state capitalist country under the firm grip of Stalinism. In Spain in 1936, the workers’ council movement arose in response to the attempts of a right wing coup to topple a democratically elected government. Although the councils were armed, they were eventually crushed by Stalinists and the Spanish bourgeoisie following the refusal of anarchists to centralize the massive power of workers into a state form.
 
The Trotskyist current represented a genuine revolutionary socialist alternative and recognized the political tasks necessary for seizing state power. However, it was far too small and weak to be of any significant influence.
 
Centralized workers’ councils emerged in Hungary in 1956 in the wake of growing divisions within the state capitalist ruling class. Those councils would grow out of Budapest to challenge both the Nagy and Kadar regimes at the same time as organizing to meet the needs of its own populations. Consider the words of one delegate to the Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council:
 

It immediately became evident. . . that the population had great confidence in us. They sought our help in the solution of all their problems and worries. The government was simply ignored; everyone who had a problem to settle came to us. Therefore dealing with people’s more or less serious problems became one of our most important daily tasks. We helped in the distribution of food, clothing and medical consignments arriving from abroad, exposed and put an end to abuses, etc.9

 
Despite the widespread support for and participation in the workers’ councils in Hungary, the sheer weight of the Stalinist military presence — 3,000 tanks and 200,000 troops — meant that the unarmed councils could not sustain their resistance.
 
The seeds of soviets appeared more recently in Portugal in 1974 and in Poland during the Solidarity Movement in 1980. Councils also appeared in Chile — called cordones — in 1973 in response to the strike of capital as it attempted to force the elected radical President Salvador Allende from power. The cordones organized food and goods distribution across the length of the country even in the middle of a general strike. Councils also appeared in Iran — called shoras — during the Iranian revolution in 1979. They helped organize on a national scale the everyday needs of the Iranian people.
 
City wide strike committees or rank and file networks, remarkable expressions of the creative collective organization of the working class, can and do exist in non-revolutionary situations. However, fully fledged workers’ councils are distinct from these as they represent political self-government arising in the context of dual power. Only when workers’ committees or networks have grown and developed to the point where they continue to sustain the strength of a strike at the same time as organizing the basic needs of the wider population they represent — effectively challenging the authority of the previously existing state — do we see a workers’ council or soviet. Although many of the movements described above aspired to achieve a level of organization that would have allowed workers’ councils to emerge, not all of them succeeded. And of those movements that were successful in developing workers’ councils, only one was able to move beyond workers’ councils to state power and eventually to socialist revolution: the Russian Revolution of 1917.
 
Why was the Russian experience successful and not the others? The crucial missing ingredient in all other cases was the presence of a mass revolutionary party that combined political clarity with activity in workplaces right across the country. In some cases, the party was missing altogether; in others, it was too undeveloped or had insufficient roots among workers to wield any meaningful influence.
 
The lessons for anti-capitalists today could not be more clear. As capital has spread its tentacles to the corners of the earth, it has pulled into struggle millions and millions of workers on a scale never seen before. We need a mechanism to unite these struggles not only across cities and regions but also across countries and around the world. And we need to draw on the deep well of theory that can teach us important lessons from the past as we navigate our way through future struggles. Despite claims from some sections of the left that the influence of the state has been usurped by the corporations (an argument not unlike that held by Italian workers in the early 1920s), the state continues to intervene in the economy, pouring billions into corporate welfare and prosecuting wars abroad to guarantee access to markets and resources.
 
Only the combination of the lessons of the revolutionary tradition and consistent revolutionary activity among the working class — manifest in the existence of a revolutionary party — can carry a workers’ council movement beyond the boundaries of one city or region to a genuine national mobilization against the power of the state itself. As history has clearly demonstrated, there will be more revolutionary situations in which workers’ councils emerge again. The key task for anti-capitalists today is to organize and be ready for when that day comes.
 
---
 
1 Leon Trotsky, 1905 (London: 1975), p.122
 
2 Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (London: 1977), p. 224
 
3 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 24 (Moscow: 1965), p. 38
 
4 Lenin, Collected Works, p. 38
 
5 Donny Gluckstein, The Western Soviets: Workers’ Councils versus Parliament 1915 — 1920 (London: 1985)
 
6 For a more detailed analysis of the German working class and the left over this period, see Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 – 1923 (London: 1982).
 
7 See Paul Kellogg, “The Biennio Rosso: Gramsci and the Italian Factory Occupation Movement”, in this issue of Marxism, for a detailed analysis of the Italian workers’ movement and the politics of Antonio Gramsci during this period.
 
8 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings, 1910-1920 (London: 1977), p. 194
 
9 Chris Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe: 1945-1983 (London: 1988), p. 164
 
10 Workers’ councils have not developed in Canada, but the city wide strike committee that emerged during the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, and the workplace occupations that occurred during the Québec General Strike in 1972 were considerable achievements by workers’ action from below. For more information on these events, readers should consult Norman Penner, Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers’ Own History of the Winnipeg General Strike (Toronto: 1975) and Quebec Labour: The Confederation of National Trade Unions Yesterday and Today (Montreal: 1975).

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