The SPGB speaker's notes for the discussion
What are “Workers’ Councils”? What are we going to mean by the term? One definition is given by someone who wrote a book advocating them, Anton Pannekoek. Here’s his definition:
“The organisation of production by the workers is founded on free collaboration: no masters, no servants. The combination of all the enterprises into one social organisation takes place on the same principle. The mechanism for this purpose must be built by the workers. Given the impossibility to collect the workers of all the factories into one meeting, they can only express their will by means of delegates. For such bodies of delegates in later times the name of workers’ councils has come into use.”
On this definition, “workers’ councils” are a variety of working-class organisation at the point of production. The working class organised industrially, or economically. Other varieties would be trade unions, industrial unions, one big union, strike committees.
What attitude should revolutionary socialists take towards the economic organisation of the working class? Fully in favour of course. Obviously, workers need to organise to resist the downward pressures exerted all the time on their wages and working conditions under capitalism. But there is no need to give preference to a particular form, as long as workers organise on democratic lines, with the sort of system of election of delegates and majority decision-making described by Pannekoek.
So, what would or could be the role of economic organisations of the working class in the socialist revolution? There has been one strand in the revolutionary tradition that has taken the view that these should play a leading role, that they should in fact be the instrument of the social revolution. There’s the Syndicalists with their idea of a General Strike to overthrow capitalism, the IWW with their idea that the workers should take and hold the means of production. In his book Pannekoek too envisages the working class using strike action and occupations to confront and finally overthrow capitalism.
But what about the State?
But there is one big drawback to this approach: it leaves political control, that is, the control of the State machine and its instruments of coercion, in the hands of the capitalist class. This is dangerous as it means that they will have at their disposal a powerful instrument with which to oppose any industrial action. This is why Marx in his day always insisted on the need to first take control of political power out of the hands of the capitalist class before attempting to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism.
If you accept the need to win control of political power, there are basically only two ways of doing so: armed insurrection or the ballot box.
Insurrection and minority action go together. In fact, to organise an insurrection is the origin of the theory of the vanguard party. In any event, today it is obviously out of the question on practical grounds, as the IWW and Pannekoek recognised.
So, what about elections as a way to win control of political power? Marx himself did not rule this out even in his day as long as certain political conditions were met, and said so publicly. The conditions he had in mind were a stable political structure, a government responsible to an elected law-making body, and a majority of working-class electors. He specifically mentioned Britain as an example of this. These conditions now exist in most industrially developed capitalist countries. So, today, the only practical way to win control of political power is through the ballot box, backed up of course by socialist-minded workers democratically self-organised outside parliament.
What’s wrong with contesting elections?
But even if this were not the case, that the ballot box was not a way to win political power, this would not be a reason for revolutionaries not to contest elections. Elections are a way of challenging pro-capitalist parties and politicians so they don’t get a free run. They are a way of spreading socialist class consciousness and, if a socialist is elected as the delegate of those who elected them, that secures a tribune from which to campaign against capitalism and for socialism. Having a majority of MPs on the side of the revolution would add legitimacy to it and take this away from the capitalist class.
There is no case for not contesting elections on principle. There is certainly a strong case for not voting for pro-capitalist candidates and abstaining when this is the only choice, but not for not putting up socialist candidates where this is practical. Anti-electoralism is an anarchist dogma and the onus is on those who are against ever contesting an election to make a coherent case.
The main objection seems to be that any socialist delegate sent to parliament would be corrupted and co-opted into the Establishment. This had indeed been the experience of Labour and Social Democratic parties all over the world. But who is advocating the sort of electoral action they engage in? Quite apart from thinking and spreading the illusion that capitalism can be reformed to work in the interest of wage and salary workers, they put their candidates forward as leaders who, if elected, are going to do things for people. Their MPs are leaders not delegates.
We can envisage a quite different kind of electoral politics: workers, when they have become socialist, organising themselves into a mass, democratic political party on the same basis as Pannekoek envisaged for his “workers’ councils”, i.e. no leaders, only mandated and revocable delegates. A socialist MP would simply be the delegate of those who had voted them, just as anyone elected to some central council of workers’ councils would be.
If this will work for industrial organisation, why won’t it work for political organisation? After all, the same people, the same workers, will be involved, organising themselves in the one case in the places where they work and in the other where they live (as well as with those without a job or who are retired). If you wanted to, you could even regard the mass, socialist political party as a sort of “workers’ council” as it too would be made up of workers organised on the basis of delegate democracy.
The realm of speculation
But what would be the role of workers’ economic organisations in the socialist revolution? Because they will still have a role, even they are incapable of overthrowing capitalism on their own. Essentially, it would to keep production going and to prepare to take over the workplaces and run them after the abolition by political means of the political structure that maintains capitalism.
We are now entering the realm of speculation but it is possible to imagine the political and economic organisations of the working class being joined in a single socialist movement, with each section having its specific task, the political to win control of the State and the economic to keep production going.
So, workers should organise themselves democratically at their place of work but this can take a variety of forms (industrial unions, Pannekoek’s workers’ councils, the IWW’s One Big Union). There is no need to make a fetish of one particular organisational form. What is important is democratic control by the members.
Once capitalism has been abolished these can form the initial basis for the democratic management of production. But since classes, including the working class, will have been abolished it wouldn’t be appropriate call them “workers’ councils”. There will no longer be any “workers”, just free and equal men and women running industry and society through councils of delegates.
The Free Communist position on workers' councils can be read at this link