Workers' councils: a brief history from the Paris Commune to Poland


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Workers' councils:
a brief history from the Paris Commune to Poland

The history of workers' uprisings concretely demonstrates that workers are capable of self-government and instinctively recognize the need to set up bodies capable of administering and operating the industries and services without any help from capitalists or bureaucrats.

The approach of the 112th anniversary of the Paris Commune brings to mind the many instances of workers' efforts to take control of the means of production. In every instance, those efforts were subverted or defeated before the workers could consolidate their control of the productive forces and organize and establish a social organization capable of directing the whole national economy in the interests of the entire society.

Those unsuccessful efforts, however, offer important lessons for the socialist movement, even as they demonstrate workers' instinctive recognition that the establishment of a truly free and affluent society depends upon worker control and democratic management of the industries and social services.

The Paris Commune was the first attempt at such social revolution. It took place in France in March 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The French capitalist government -- the Republic -- had surrendered to the Prussians, though the Prussian army had not actually occupied Paris. Many of the workers of Paris had been serving as National Guardsmen and were still armed. When the regular armed forces of the Republic attempted to disarm the National Guard, the workers of Paris rebelled, overthrew the Republic's authority in Paris and declared the Paris Commune.

The Commune abolished the standing army of the Republic, replacing it with a fully armed populace. It then proceeded to replace the existing state apparatus with a directly elected people's assembly. While this assembly form of government had certain deficiencies, it was nonetheless a government that expressed the collective will of the workers of Paris. In other words, the workers of Paris governed themselves.

The power to recall any person elected to the assembly and the practice of paying government officials no more than workers' wages were established as principles of the Commune. These principles workers have applied again and again during the course of working-class revolts since the Commune. They reflect the practical necessities of workers' self-government.

Simultaneously, the workers reorganized, operated and administered the public services in Paris and kept them running effectively despite the wartime conditions that prevailed. In addition, plans were made to reopen the workshops and factories under the control of workers' associations.

Unfortunately, the Commune never had the chance to apply its principles of self-government to the overall economy. After only two months, the army of the Republic, aided by the Prussian army, retook Paris, slaughtered thousands of workers, and destroyed the Commune.

As occurred during subsequent attempts at working-class revolution, the workers of the Paris Commune made strategic errors that contributed to their defeat by the forces of class rule. They erred in not attacking the Republic's army and extending the self-rule of the Commune across France when they had the chance. They also failed to take advantage of their control of the Bank of France. And in general, the workers failed to fully recognize that the capitalist class was a resolute and vicious class enemy. But the Commune did not fail; it was defeated and brutally suppressed. But before that happened, the workers demonstrated not only their tremendous courage and determination but also their latent capacity of self-government.


The next historical example of workers' capacity for self-government was during the Russian Revolution of 1905. In that year, general strikes spread throughout the industrial centers of Russia. To coordinate their efforts, workers' organized Soviets -- locally based workers' councils consisting of elected delegates from factories and other workplaces.

For a brief period, these Soviets functioned almost as an alternative government, commanding greater allegiance from workers than did the government of the czar. The Soviets embodied the same general features of democracy and workers' control that the Commune had encompassed. And tragically, those soviets met the same fate at the hands of the czar's army that the Commune had suffered at the hands of the French reaction.

However, the Soviets were reborn during the Russian Revolution of 1917. More significantly, workers also formed factory committees -- elected and controlled by assemblies of all the workers in each factory. Through these committees, the Russian workers collectively controlled and operated much of the industrial means of production during that chaotic period.

Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks who assumed state power in November 1917, had a different concept of the road to establishing socialism. They believed that the "vanguard party" and the state, not the workers' own industrially based associations, should administer and control the means of production. The Bolshevik hierarchs soon curtailed the powers of the factory committee and brought them under their control.

Sporadic efforts by workers to reassert the powers of the factory committees against Bolshevik state power were suppressed, sometimes by brute force. The Bolshevik party consolidated its control over the economy and set on foot the system of bureaucratic statist class rule that still prevails today. Again the workers' failure to maintain control over the means of production did not stem from any inability to administer production but from strategic errors. Most workers supported the Bolsheviks' revolutionary aims and identified them with their own. Given that and the chaotic conditions of the period, not enough workers recognized the conflict of interest between their own aspirations for socialism and the Bolsheviks' program and rule until it was too late.

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and the turmoil following the end of World War I, workers' council movements, in large measure patterned after the Russian Soviets, workers' assemblies and factory committees emerged and struggled for power in Hungary, Poland, Italy, Germany and Bulgaria.

All of these movements were put down by the stronger forces of counterrevolution. In some instances, the workers' movements were co-opted and integrated into the capitalist system, as in Italy. In other instances, they were smashed outright, as in Hungary. In still other instances, they were neutralized by a combination of these two tactics, as in Germany.

Yet again workers demonstrated their capacity for self-government. And again their failure to consolidate power resulted in part from strategic errors. Those errors included: misplaced trust in the social-democratic parties that supported continued capitalist rule and betrayed the workers, too much emphasis on general strikes and street battles and not enough on workers' organization with a view to establishing control of production itself, and the lack of a coherent program for defeating class rule and the state and providing a social mechanism for administering the economy as a whole.


During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) anarchists, syndicalists, Marxists, and other workers and peasants gained control of the entire province of Catalonia, including the city of Barcelona, and other sections of Spain -- and administered affairs through councils directly controlled by and responsible to the workers and peasants. And again the military superiority of opposing forces, this time the Franco fascists and their allies, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, eventually defeated the workers.

Strategic errors and betrayals that may have contributed to the workers defeat are too complex to be fully examined here. However, it should be noted that the Spanish workers' collectives were limited in effectiveness by the fact that most were not integrally organized. For example, the anarchist federations made no attempt to destroy market relations in favor of democratically controlled centralized planning. Each workplace and factory, though worker-controlled, remained an independent entity in competition with others. This lack of centralized authority hampered working-class solidarity and led to economic problems.

Despite such flaws, the workers' and peasants' collectives of Spain provided yet another example of workers' instinctively moving to take control of the industries and services and attempting to administer them in society's interest.

The next major attempt at workers' control of production took place within the Soviet bloc. In Hungary, in October 1956, the violent suppression of a protest by students and writers set off a nationwide rebellion and general strike. Workers spontaneously formed interindustrial councils in the major cities. As Hungarian state authority collapsed, the councils assumed control of much of the country. Demands for workers' control of production were raised and efforts initiated to form a National Workers' Council to supplant the existing state ruling class.

Unfortunately, all kinds of conflicting demands, including those of precapitalist and reactionary elements, were also raised. Workers never had the opportunity to work out differences and agree upon a common program. Nor did they ever have the opportunity to form a National Workers' Council. The Soviet invasion drowned all such aspirations in blood.


During the Allende government's tenure in Chile in the early 1970s, workers and peasants seized control of their workplaces and began to set up democratic bodies to administer them. Those organs of popular power again took the form of workplace based assemblies and elected councils.

A political expression also began to take shape around the councils before the U.S.-supported fascist coup of 1973. This was the Movement of the Revolutionary Left. But the power of the military organized behind the fascist junta with the help and support of U.S. imperialism, combined with Allende's misguided program of disarming the workers, not only succeeded in smashing the nascent organs of workers' power but totally destroyed the Allende government and brutally suppressed the workers and peasants.

In Portugal during the turmoil of 1974-75, workers seized control of a large proportion of Portuguese industry and democratically administered it for two years through elected workers' bodies called "commissions." The peasants did the some in the agricultural sector through collectives. Efforts were made to form a new government consisting of a national assembly of workers' councils. Portions of the armed forces came over to the side of the workers' commissions and fought to protect them from troops loyal to the capitalist state.

Some elements of the workers' movement had a clear conception of workers' self-government and had the beginnings of a program for genuine socialism. However, much of the workers' movement placed too much emphasis and dependence on the military struggle of the rebel soldiers and not enough on organizing workers' industrial might.

When the rebel military forces were defeated in late 1975, the workers' commissions were put on the defensive and encountered growing difficulties in their efforts to unite on a nationwide basis. The misnamed socialist government of Mario Soares eventually succeeded in suppressing the commissions and expropriating the peasant collectives.

The most recent emergence of workers' councils was during the struggles in Poland in 1980-81. Growing alongside of the Solidarity trade union movement, independent workers' councils were set up in over 60 percent of Poland's factories before martial law was imposed in December 1981. Although this council movement never actually gained control of any means of production, it provides one more example of workers' spontaneously taking steps to assume control of the means of production when they aspire to self-government.

The strategic error of the Polish workers' council movement was the same as Solidarity's: its belief that workers' control of production could be attained without having to struggle to overthrow the Polish bureaucratic ruling class. Some workers within the movement recognized the error and began to advocate a revolutionary course, but it was too little, too late. The imposition of martial law destroyed the movement -- at least for the time being.


Taken as a whole, the history of workers' uprisings concretely demonstrates that workers are capable of self-government and instinctively recognize the need to set up bodies capable of controlling, directing, administering and operating the industries and services without any help from capitalists or bureaucrats. That history also demonstrates that during periods of extreme economic hardship and political and social upheaval they have repeatedly moved to create their own industrially based associations and elected councils and made them the basis for conducting a revolutionary struggle against their ruling-class oppressors.

At the same time, the history of those uprisings is also a history of defeat. These defeats have always been at the hands of a well-armed class enemy. Contributing to those defeats, however, have been the workers' failure fully to understand the nature of its class enemy, and its failure to recognize that its greatest source of strength lies precisely in its industrial organization.

Since the revolutionary workers' council movements arose more or less spontaneously, they had not developed a sound revolutionary program and organizations upon which to build -- a program and organizations that incorporated the lessons of previous working-class experiences.

Socialism, democratic workers' control of the economy, is an attainable goal. To attain the goal, however, workers must have a greater understanding of society and the social forces with which they must contend, and be better prepared and organized than any other revolutionary class in history. The more thoroughly the working class is already organized around a sound revolutionary program and principles during a revolutionary crisis, the better its chances for success.

The socialist industrial union program of the Socialist Labor Party is a sound revolutionary program. Briefly, the socialist industrial union program proposes organizing workers as a class into integrated rank-and-file controlled unions with the explicit goal of replacing capitalist ownership and control of the industries with social ownership and workers' collective control. These socialist industrial unions (SIUs) would serve both as a means of struggling against and expropriating the capitalist class, and as the foundation for the administrative bodies that would replace the capitalist class and its political state, and run the economy to meet social needs.


Each SIU would encompass all the workers in a given plant or workplace.

As did the factory committees and workers' councils that emerged in previous struggles, the workers in SIUs would elect committees to supervise the operations of their plant or workplace, local industrial councils to administer the affairs of the industry in the area, and local inter-industrial councils to conduct united struggles against the capitalist class. All the elected representatives would be subject to the democratic control of the rank and file and to the right of the rank and file to recall them.

But the SIUs would go further than that. They would be fully integrated into one working class. They would elect national councils in each industry, to administer the affairs of that industry on a national level. They would also elect representatives from each industry to a national interindustrial union congress that would coordinate and administer the industries and social services of the nation in the interest of all society.

Finally, the SIU program incorporates another vital lesson of working-class history. It calls upon workers to organize a revolutionary political party to combat the propaganda and ideology of the capitalist class and its parties and to raise the classconsciousness of the workers. It would also serve as a vehicle to promote, recruit for, and organize the SIU. It would challenge capitalist state power and seek to capture the state -- not for the purpose of exercising state power, but in order to dismantle it and clear the way for the SIU to establish the workers' self-government.

By advancing the principle that it is the industrial, not the political organization of labor, that must take over the administration of the new society, an SlU-based revolutionary party would help workers steer clear of the twin pitfalls of social democracy and Leninism. Instead of control over the economy by a party or state bureaucracy, the SIU program clearly promotes the principle of, and lays the programmatic foundation for, workers' democratic control of the entire economy.

Thus, the SLP's socialist industrial union program provides a plan and strategy through which workers can create a new economic system that will work for them -- because they will control it. In advancing that program, the SLP seeks to raise workers' classconsciousness and to encourage workers to launch an SIU movement before a revolutionary crisis.

The crucial question is whether enough workers will organize around such a program for a socialist reconstruction of society before capitalism collapses into some more barbaric form of class rule or before a nuclear holocaust destroys us all.