I’m presently engaged in a study of organization with Adela. Both of us are members of Unity & Struggle and the IWW and GDC. This is due to the imposing need to develop a holistic theory of organization that breaks out of the the schema of the party/union duality as well as other empirical and formalistic thinking on workers organization. To do this it will require a close observation of the activity of proletarians and militants both in their political and in their productive activity (composition). We are also very much concerned with the building of revolutionary political organization and the programmatic dimension. This study will take the form of conversations and notes hopefully toward more finished pieces of writing that can circulate broadly.
The first piece we read and discussed was chs. 9-10 Geoff Eley’s “Forging Democracy.” It serves as more of a broad overview rather than a granular analysis. For us it is somewhat helpful toward providing context of the new forms of organization to manifest in the 1917-1923 period.
The following are notes from our conversation about the piece.
Chapter 9: Breaking the Mold of Socialism, Left-Wing Communism 1917-1923
The Russian Revolution
The essentialism of the Russian Revolution–as it brought back to the fore of revolutionary politics the role of the subjective. Gramsci signified this in his article, “Revolution against Capital,” which referred to Marx’s Capital, by then interpreted less a critique of alienation and more a positivist view of capitalism’s progressive development.
The weakness of Russian civil society, already worn down by war, gave the working class in its dual power moment leverage toward a successful insurrection while also giving the rest of Europe, many countries vastly more contained within formal bourgeois institutions the impetus to begin an offensive.
The Geography of Revolution
The first sequence of activity was the wave of strikes in January 1918 which spread over central Europe in response to Imperial Germany’s harsh terms to Soviet Russia in the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty.
The second sequence was in October 1918 and took the form of a series of republican revolutions following Germany’s defeat and fragmentation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, German-Austria, Hungary, Poland, and West Ukraine, all of the former Habsburg monarchy. This concluded with the overthrow of the German Empire and the emergence of the Weimar Republic in November.
The broad opposition against the SPD that had split in 1915, the USPD, temporarily allied with them during revolutionary November and eventually joined the Weimar Republic but in the conciliatory form of the “council of people’s deputies.”
The Spartakusbund, recently split from the USPD, attempted an insurrection of a permanent character in Berlin in January 1919 resulting in defeat and the subsequent murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Following the Bolshevik example, the Sparts proclaimed:
“The question today is not democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda reads: bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy. For the dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean bombs, putsches, riots and anarchy, as the agents of capitalist profits deliberately and falsely claim. Rather, it means using all instruments of political power to achieve socialism, to expropriate the capitalist class, through and in accordance with the will of the revolutionary majority of the proletariat.”
As a result of this activity and on the belief that there would be European socialism, the Third or Communist International (Comintern) formed in March 1919.
The same month the Hungarian Soviet Republic emerges out of the coalition government of Michael Karolyi buttressed by social democratic unions. The unions increasingly were having to deal with the control of the factories due to economic decline and led to workers councils and red guards and become the social basis for a new form of rule. The new Soviet Republic would stall out after only four months but maintains the momentum of the moment touched off by Russia.
In Spain there was the Trienio Bolchevista (Bolshevik Three Years) in 1918-1920 and in Italy the Biennio Rosso (Red Two Years) 1919-1920 of intense communist and self-activity.
In Russia the Bolsheviks pursue a policy of limited private appropriation via the NEP. What do you do when the revolution doesn’t proliferate in other parts of the world? The Bolsheviks became the State so its difficult to be sympathetic to their position, but a key basis for communism were the instrumentality of Soviets which were decimated and deserted.
The Range of Revolutionary Experience
Though only the Hungarian revolution was successful (in the short-term) following Russia, there revolutionary situations (dyarchies or dual powers) across the Continent. The main tactics of the period between October and November 1918 were “demonstrations, strikes, riots, mutinies, and the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils.”
The defeat of these revolutionary moments resulted in authoritarian regimes and police terror.
During this period there was an exponential growth in the trade unions and from 1913-1918 there was between Britain, Germany, Denmark and Norway union density ballooned to 2-3 times its size. This was immanently tied to the short post-war boom and the shift to peacetime production. Eley argues that the openness to reform of states, the intensity of worker militancy, and the dramatic increase in union density was only possible due to this boom and once it passed, workers struggles shifted to defense.
Conservative trade union bureaucracies were given leverage by the short-term boom and were expected by the ruling classes to keep workers self-activity in check.
The nationalist character of Eastern Europe shaped the social turbulence there as not only old states were redrawn, but entirely new states were created by ethnic minorities. The defeat of German imperialism complicated this picture, similarly to the vacuum left by the destruction of contemporary Arab dictatorships. The Bolsheviks endorsed national self-determination but in practice it often meant former national minorities blocking with counterrevolutionary movements and anti-Soviet forces. Left Social Democratic and later Communist forces in Romania were completely marginalized by nationalist developments.
Czechoslovakia was an interesting experiment in mediating the tensions between class and nation according to Eley. The SD party blocked with other liberal forces and incipient Communists then led a broader unity to a Communist Party resulting from an “‘organic’ radicalization inside the framework of a national revolution” with roots in all the Czechoslovak nationalities.
Questions we have are what does it mean to be internationalist in today’s context? If national self-determination has been absorbed into the social democratic and Stalinist frameworks, but we are still committed to fighting the specificity of national minority existence as well as around race and gender, how do we think through the global dynamics of this as revolutionary unfolds? While we can’t anticipate with certainty how it will manifest, what is our principle?
Council Communism and the Revolt of the Rank and File
The councils took on various forms throughout Europe: from shop stewards in Britain to factory councils in Italy. These expressed new forms of class activity outside the party/union dichotomy, where parties were tied to the state and the unions to the reproduction of the wage relation. The councils were all about the control and management of the productive process itself. The councils in this way were similar to earlier syndicalist forms in their opposition to parties but also in their control over production. The councils however expressed a different composition of capital and labor. Some saw the councils as semi-permanent in nature until the tasks of the democratic revolution were achieved. But councils transcended the economic/political separation reified by decades of social democratic thinking and organization.
The councils grew in radicalization after the January 1919 uprising of the Spartakusbund leading to the development of soviets, or deputies from the councils that had an explicitly political character; its most developed form being the Petrograd Soviet in Russia. Many councils were based not only on production but in neighborhoods or were a mix of the two and existed in parallel with the traditional forms of governance.
‘Socialization’ became a watchword of German council communism which argued for a mix of workers control and public ownership, exemplified by the Essen Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council.
While the revolts in Germany were largely against the SPD, the USPD or the KPD opposition parties were not in control of them and were the self-activity and self-organization of the German working classes. The lines were blurred between the older syndicalism, the new industrial unionism, the KPD, and the popular militancy but each of these were united in opposition to the SPD and their affiliated unions.
The councils had an insular character however and didn’t take up the question of gender and reproduction or the relationship to non-proletarian elements indicating their productivist and workerist instinct. This was a critique leveled against the councils by Bordiga and the Communist Left who otherwise supported the councils:
“The factory will be conquered by the working class – and not only by the workforce employed in it, which would be too weak and non-communist – only after the working class as a whole has seized political power. Unless it has done so, the Royal Guards, military police, etc. – in other words, the mechanism of force and oppression that the bourgeoisie has at its disposal, its political power apparatus – will see to it that all illusions are dispelled.”
The KAPD put forward the view that, “The problem of the German revolution is the problem of the development of the self-consciousness of the German proletariat.”
The unions could not absorb the councils as the latter prevented the unions from being able to negotiate and manage. Because of this there were attempts to contain the councils by the unions, as exemplified by the Baldesi Project in Turin, Italy which gave into a modicum of council control but maintaining policy decisions of the unions.
In Germany the Central Working Agreement which was brokered by the factory owners and the SPD unions went much further and completely stripped the councils of anything but symbolic power.
The councils had a transitory character however as as the window of the revolutionary wave of this period came to a close, depriving them of their basis. This seems important for not making a fetish of council forms, but tying them to the activity and content of workers struggle.
Chapter 10: Germany and Italy, Two Cases
Germany, 1918-1923: The Social Democratic Republic
A key feature of the German Revolution was the outright hostility of the SPD which instead of trying to absorb worked to viciously suppress it. The right-wing of the SPD (Ebert, Scheidemann) saw the constitutional republic of Weimar as the outcome and confirmation of their gradualism and social patriot policies.
In November, 1918, a Soviet Republic was established in Bavaria which the SPD outright opposed to their constituent assembly which was consistent with their logic of political defeat and truce in the World War: order, discipline, patriotism, fear of mass activity, contempt for the Left, and compromise with the old rulers.
The situation in November promised no clear alternative: the SPD had formal power but were not in control, USPD “acquired a stronger profile in the freer atmosphere of October but were no convincing alternative,” and the Sparts were splintered.
The Council of People’s Commissars gave a voice to the SPD and USPD, including the left. The shop stewards in Berlin wanted “socialization” to be a part of the new government which the SPD agreed to but they were in control of the government. During this the new government issued new reforms strictly bourgeois in content: eight-hour workday, full employment and unemployment security, greater social insurance, housing reforms, universal suffrage, proportional representation, constituent assembly, and end of wartime repression.
This was intentional by the SPD, of course who had no plans for a socialist project and this was exemplified by the above reforms and by the alliance with the military officers to stamp out Bolshevist elements, preventing soviets from emerging among the military and the formation of worker militias, the worst example of this effort being the formation of the Freikorps, volunteer militias to put down the revolt which were forerunners of the Nazis.
The “advances” made by the Weimar Republic in the State and the unions were really only to defeat a deeper revolt. The SPD was not trying to absorb popular struggle into the new legal framework but define its limits and rein it in.
The events of January 1919 were not the end of the November revolution but its beginning as waves of struggle would come and go throughout the next few years.
Italy: Counterrevolution Triumphant
The Italian situation in many ways was more advanced than Germany. It also shared similar objective features with Russia: the time and pace of industrialization and industrial concentration which was focused in the northern part of the country, a more determinant role by the State in this process, with the combined and uneven development of the countryside. It sooner ended in fascism than Germany, but the German SPD arguably paved the way to its own fascist end.
Italy’s social democratic party, the PSI was one of the only to refuse support for the imperialist world war. The leadership of the PSI in this period (compared with previous ones) was infinitely more pro-Bolshevik and opposed the constraining and compromising parliamentary SPD approach.
The Biennio Rosso, or Red Two Years, of 1919-1920 saw a huge upsurge in revolutionary activity and membership in the PSI and trade unions increased dramatically.
The PSI was concentrated in the industrial North but the northern countryside was also very militant. The Federterra as an agricultural workers union with some million members, but it was so much more. Its living existence was quite and included its local groups, cooperatives, relationship with the PSI reps in local government, public works contracts, etc.
Prior to this period, In 1912, the Maximalists (led by Mussolini before his turn to social patriotism and eventually fascism) who were inspired by the Bolshevik model in pre-revolutionary Russia, held sway in the PSI over the Reformists, the latter eventually splitting off giving the Maximalists absolute hegemony. By 1918, with rising popular militancy, the PSI found itself in the position of timidity–in words it supported revolution while in practice it abstained from involvement. In the Biennio Rosso it deferred to the CGL union leadership during the mass demos around cost-of-living, the general strike in Piedmont, and the factory occupations of 1920. The Maximalist PSI even with its Bolshevik politics still contained a lot of Kautskyian instincts about capitalism and socialism.
Eley concluded that the Maximalists “fed expectations without resolving them” which seems to have sealed their fate: “They fanned a mood of revolutionary excitement but refused to shape it into a revolutionary challenge.” The conclusions of the author are organizational: “the need for revolutionary leadership, a Bolshevik party.”
How do revolutionary organizations turn “revolutionary excitement” into “revolutionary challenges”? What kind of qualities does this require of an organization and how do they relate to the actual process of revolutionary moments? Here it is posed not as a revolutionary group leading in authoritarian terms a movement to revolution but as failing to turn an already revolutionary movement into power. What are the requirements of a revolutionary organization to do this?
Dilemmas of Revolution: Parliaments, Factories, and Streets
Here again, failure of revolutionary organization, fading “away at the moment of truth.”
Additionally there was the insularity of the city struggle from the middle class, petty peasantry, ex-soldiers movement, etc. Part of this dynamic was its localism and lack of national cohesion among the PSI. There was also considerable spatial separation as the PSI was far removed from the capital of Rome and Rome was not a hotbed of political activity like Turan or Milan or Genoa.
Here Eley argues that the PSI should have entered a broader democratic bloc; a similar recommendation to the Left in Germany. I believe he is somewhere between the SPD and Bolshevism and is partial to the forms of mass democracy. But there are strategic implications to building blocs with other social and political forces, but coalitions are not a silver bullet to every political impasse.