THINKING ABOUT COMMUNISM: Ideas and Realities: Comments on Gabriel Kuhnby Charles Reeve
The fall of the former Soviet bloc in 1991 left Marxist-Leninist ideologues at a loss. People who had spent years working hard, often with arrogance and self-confidence, to convince us that a “new reading” of Lenin was the necessary path towards revolution found themselves floating over the ruins and finally recycled their avant-gardist savoir-faire into the formation of new systems of concepts, where Empire replaced Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism—in this case, a system which was favorably received in a few academic circles mourning the lost past. More comic, or simply a mark of ideological confusion, is the intellectual seduction accomplished by Stalin freaks such as “le grand Philosophe” Alain Badiou. The same person who in 1979 was still defending the totalitarianism of the Khmer Rouge1 is presented today as someone able to express “the Idea” which replaces the role of the party in the new communist process.2
Anybody willing to make an effort to think for themselves cannot honestly take these developments as a sign of “communist revival.” At best, they show that the state-capitalist project is still breathing after its collapse, desperately trying to come back to life from a living death. To put these corpses aside is the first step if we are to go further.
To ask if the idea of communism is still a perspective for changing the present world implies that we must discuss what this idea means after the disaster left by the collapse of the state-capitalist system which had been associated with it. More precisely: what could be the principles and content of a non-capitalist system? In a text published in Field Notes in March 20183 Gabriel Kuhn (GK) addressed this question, briefly invoking the tradition of revolutionary council-communism, which he knows well.4 GK says that “we need a theory adapted to our times” but he has not much to say about how to connect the practices and ideas of the past to this new theory. One could assume it will be created just on the basis of present-day experience. He asserts that that “councils are essential for communist projects” without going much further.
A century ago, the small currents inspired by the council movements provided a promising new starting point for breaking with traditional marxist conceptions. They discussed the reorganization of society from a totally new perspective. By raising the question of councils, GK invites us to what should be a stimulating debate on the relation between present-day struggles and heterodox ideas of communism. We believe that confronting the council ideas with the movements which exist today can help to reveal the contradictions and limits of those movements.
Not surprisingly, these heterodox conceptions of the past, opposed to the authoritarian projects of a society organized by the State, have aroused some interest within new movements looking for a way out of the barbaric path of capitalism. It would be false and opportunistic to pretend that these conceptions, like anarchist ones, have played a leading role in the creation and development of the new movements, which are primarily powered by revolt against the present world and were, for good reasons, suspicious of ideologies. Nevertheless, it seems evident that these tendencies from the past are the only ones with immediate relevance to the current movements, because they are part of the link between the old moments of self-emancipation and the modern ones.
Council-communist ideas arose from the great social movements of the beginning of the 20th-century in Europe, which culminated in the Russian and the German revolutions. In the ephemeral but intense period of the 1960s, subversive visions of political activity were rediscovered by radicals. According to these ideas the construction of a non-exploitative, non-capitalist society has nothing to do with a party or a program. It can only be achieved by an autonomous and, therefore, conscious process of reorganization of production and distribution. Implicit is the idea that the different forms of social division are creations of the alienated capitalist society; their overcoming requires unified forms of thought and action. Political separations such as avant-garde party forms, should be fought as bureaucratic enemies of self-control over life and action. Antonie Pannekoek, theorist of council communism, insisted that this conception should be identified not with a fetishized form of organization (the council) but with a principle of action, a “spirit of struggle,” an orientation towards self-emancipation. What is required is a movement of a new nature, bringing about “a total revolution in the spiritual life” of man and woman, in their view of society and its transformation.5
In his text, GK argues that we need to link the “idea of communism” and the real practices of present-day struggles, to link what he calls the “long term” with the “short term.” He stresses that to understand the revival of the communist project, and the creation of this “link,” it is necessary to consider the question of rupture with the old world. The question is then to understand what this “rupture” means: how can it emerge from the struggles which take place inside the old world? It’s with this perspective in mind that we should relate to the struggles of today, which should indeed not be “written off as insignificant Islands of retreat.” Certainly, capitalism has the strength and the ability to incorporate any social movement, especially ones that aim at new social principles. It is important to show what in the short term relates to the long term, what aims at the future.
According to GK, “We cannot ignore struggles that refer to communist ideals, simply because they aren’t the struggles we’d like to see.” One can also say that the existence of struggles different from the ones we’d like to see is not proof that those we’d like to see cannot happen. On the contrary. But, first, one needs to define these “communist ideals.” We know today that when Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and their followers referred to “communist ideals” the content of those ideas was state capitalism and the perpetuation of labor exploitation. We know that this means the reproduction of the old order under new forms.
GK takes up the specific case of the Rojava experience and the role played in it by the former stalinist Marxist-Leninist Kurdish party, PKK. (He also briefly mentions the Indian Naxalites.) GK openly expresses his doubts about Rojava, quoting accounts of the PKK relating to rank-and-file organisations “in the same way the Bolsheviks related to the soviets.” This is a fine approach, which helps us to understand the situation behind the ideological curtain. Through its support, the party takes from the committees whatever real power they could have, eventually preventing them from having any. The political goal is to keep the real power in the hands of the party. When the rank-and-file organization is not the result of a spontaneous movement, but a creation from above—by the party cadres, as in Rojava—this strategy succeeds with little opposition. Nevertheless, one can understand how the committees were accepted by the population in Rojava: they expressed the desire for direct democracy and for a humanization of social relations in a terrible historical period of war and religious oppression. It’s difficult, nevertheless, to identify, in this organizational process, any trend “aiming at the manifestation of communist principles,” towards a new society free of exploitation. The bureaucratic origin of this organizational process and the lack of real direct control of the organizations by the people themselves conflict with the idea of a self-organized society. The separation we see in this process, between the political leadership and the people, is in itself opposed to the idea of a libertarian-communist society. As we said before, communism is not a project, but a self-controlled collective activity aiming at ending the exploitation of labor, in fact all forms of exploitation. If communism requires the conscious self-organization of people, experiences like those underway in Rojava can hardly be understood as aiming towards communism.
Of course, one can argue, these committees might evolve into a kind of direct democracy. There is always a possibility that people will take the road of self-emancipation and change the nature of their organizations. The history of the Russian Revolution provides a good example of how the confrontation between the direct democracy of the Soviets and the authoritarian principles of the Bolshevik leaders determined the pace of the revolution, in fact dominating the revolutionary period until the victory of a new ruling class. This being said, history shows us that the possibility of gaining control over organizations which are not spontaneously created requires great energy. It is a difficult task, implying the transformation of the class nature of those organizations. In fact, such situations do not often create conditions in which social autonomy can develop; on the contrary, most of the time they aim to subordinate the population to bureaucratic control. In the long term, they are a source of disillusionment and mourning, reversing the old IWW slogan that provides GK’s title “Don’t mourn, Organize!” The Rojava experience is, so far, one more episode in the tragic history of the Kurdish people, trapped once again between contradictory capitalistic interests and the desire to build a better world to live in. The dimension of the tragedy is measured by the means offered to women to achieve liberation from religious bigotry: their submission to military discipline.
Despite these particular historical circumstances, GK insists that “It makes little sense to demand struggles for communism if we shy away from engaging with ones that exist.” The question is not one of shying away but of understanding what place anti-capitalists can have in these situations. Any struggle aiming at a better social life deserves support and empathy. But this is not the same as explicit support for the perpetuation of class domination and exploitation. In other words, the central issue is to know how to engage in these situations without giving up ideas and principles. What, for example, does it mean to join the PKK militias, as some young anarchists have done, with the idea that this is part of building a free society “in the long term”? This tactical attitude and way of behaving ends up in the “short term” reinforcing the principles of the old order. There is no “link” here between short and long term. For sure, we can take these struggles into consideration, analyze them, see what they represent within the global system, support the underground aspects of genuine anti-bureaucratic revolt which may eventually form in opposition to the bureaucratic political forces which dominate today. Meanwhile, one cannot but regret that struggles such as those of the ZAD in France6 (see the July/August 2018 issue of Field Notes), are not taken as an example of new trends of struggles which aim towards the future far more clearly than the old bureaucratic models of movements such as those in Rojava.
The same supposedly realistic principle which justifies the support of situations such as Rojava, because it is an “existing experience,” can be found in GK’s text when he talks about more general questions. In the process of constructing a non-capitalist society the question of the socialization of the economy is central. Here too, council ideas were in advance of their times, breaking with the marxist system of ideas and opening the debate to anarcho-communist conceptions. GK defends the view that political centralization is, nowadays as earlier, a necessary condition of the process. The idea of necessarily centralized planning derives from the fact of the complexity of capitalism and its massive disastrous effects on society. But this complexity is rooted in capitalist social relations, and there is no reason to conceive the transformation into a new society on the basis of the logic of capitalism’s normal functioning.
The debate is important, since the question is essential if we are to think about the political content of a modern idea of communism. Surprisingly, GK seems a prisoner of the conceptions of the past, the principles of the old currents of authoritarian socialism. Rooted in the practice of the Russian and German revolutions and their confrontation with authoritarian socialist forces, the small council-communist groups were able to reconsider the orthodox principles of Social-Democracy and Bolshevism, in particular their vision of the role of the state. Consequently they questioned the identification of planning with centralization. Historical experience had shown, of course, that some sort of planning is necessary to transform a society. This is even more true when we take into consideration such modern destructive aspects of capitalism as the ecological ones. But the political form required to undertake this planning cannot be reduced to centralization and to a unified state. Forms such as federalism and horizontal networks must be considered. As Karl Korsch argued in his studies on the Paris Commune, the idea of federalism expressed a conscious reaction to the new forms of exploitation reproduced by the centralized form of government. Federalism should be accepted as an alternative to the centralized unified state. The council ideas were an important step in this debate. The collectivization experiments of the Spanish Revolution also brought new perspectives. Finally, modern aspects of information processing and social networking systems are factors simplifying the accounting process and the means of self-government. They reinforce in a practical way the opposition to forms of political bureaucratic centralization.
The two opposed conceptions of the future society, state-capitalism and libertarian communism, have been present throughout the historical experiences of workers’ and social movements, and we need to keep this opposition in mind in relation to present-day struggles if we are to understand the process of rupture with the present order. In two future articles I will deal further with this idea, first explaining the essential aspects of the council-communist perspective and second, discussing a contemporary discussion that reduces the council conceptions to a limited managerial practice within the framework of the existing society.
- Alain Badiou, “Kampuchea vaincra !” Le Monde, 17/0/79, http://www.collectif-smolny.org/article.php3?id_article=2203
- Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot. The New Era of Uprisings, (Verso, 2016). In this book the author argues that new forms of riot—against the State and not against the “economy”—are the future of class struggle. He is one of those who present Badiou as an important “marxist” reference.
- “Don’t Mourn, Organize ! Is Communism a Pipe Dream—or a Viable Future ?” Field Notes, March 2018.
- Gabriel Kuhn is the author of the excellent edition of texts, All Power to the Councils! A Doccumentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919, Merlin Press, 2012. On the same subject, see also the incisive text by Martin Comack, Wild Socialism, University Press of America, 2012.
- Anton Pannekoek, Worker’s Councils, AK Press, 2002, remains the best book on these ideas. For a lively description of the activity of small council-oriented groups active in the US scene during the unemployed movement of the 1930s, see Gary Roth, Marxism in a Lost Century, A Biography of Paul Mattick, Haymarket Books, 2015.
- Tho texts from the movement with opposed positions: “Zad will survive” https://zadforever.blog/2018/03/12/the-zad-will-survive/ and “The movement is dead, Long life to reform !” https://zad.nadir.org/IMG/pdf/splash3-letter.pdf A good resumé of the movement and the internal conflits : “Zad, the State of play,” by S. G. and G.K. https://brooklynrail.org/2018/07/field-notes/ZAD-The-State-of-Play
CHARLES REEVE lives and writes in Paris.