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1994. Ernest Mandel: All power to the workers' councils

14 February 2023
Workers council in Petrograd 1917

Council socialism is a social order in which the mass of the population itself decides in a self-governing, self-determining manner what is produced, how production takes places, and how a decisive part of the results of this production is no longer distributed via the market, but according to the principle of satisfying needs.i 

This requires society to take into its hands the most important means of production and distribution in various - if necessary combined - forms of socialisation, as well as democratically determine priorities in the use of economic resources. It therefore represents a third way for economic life, neither that of the state-led command economy (of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist type) nor that of the market economy (including the so-called "social market economy"). This does not mean that council socialism necessarily implies a total disappearance of market mechanisms and processes. That should be decided democratically by the majority of producers, consumers and citizens.

However, it does mean that the power to determine the most important economic resources is taken away from the market, that the "laws of the market" and the compulsion for profitability, profit and personal enrichment no longer determine the dynamics and trends of economic development, and of society. This presupposes the existence of an economic plan. Without such a plan, priorities set in regards to working time and consumption choices cannot be realised. The councils themselves decide between different variants of the plan.

The objection that if everyone has to decide on everything, the result would be a society of ''permanent meetings'', in which a lack of motivation for such meetings would reduce the active participation of the citizens, is misplaced. Council socialism presupposes a staggered system of councils in which the rule of thumb would be that in each area only that what can be decided there is to be discussed. The organisation of local transport in Stuttgart does not have to be decided by an all-German, European or even world-wide council congress. Once the chosen production plan is determined, the producers in each factory would have the right to organise their own working methods. If a factory council decides that it can achieve the target in 10 hours a week instead of 20, with the strictest quality control on the part of the consumers, it would be perfectly entitled to do so.

This also means that council socialism is not only an economic but also an overall social alternative to capitalist society and to societies characterised by the rule of bureaucracies. It does not contradict the basic values laid down in the German constitution. Peter von Oertzen has made this clear in several of his publications. But it does expand the radius of emancipation, and efficiently guarantees the generalisation of human rights for all citizens, without exception.

This alternative is better able to advance women's emancipation because, among other things, it guarantees the radical reduction of working hours (the 20-hour week) and a permanent, high-quality system of childcare for all women who want it. Women's material independence is guaranteed, as is free access to the material infrastructure of domestic work for all women and men. This abolishes the misery caused by the double or even triple working day of women.

If this means that council socialism spends the still scarce economic resources on these priorities rather than on a second colour television or personal computers for every family, or even a second car for every household, this is its right, as long as this decision is taken democratically, i.e. by majority vote after open, free discussion, taking into account various alternative solutions. The rights of minorities who prefer other priorities can be guaranteed by leaving them a certain part of the available labour instruments which allows them to produce, with their own labour, the desired consumer goods which are no longer produced by society. But these minorities have no right to impose another working day on women, nor to oblige the mass of producers to work 25 hours a week if they prefer the 20-hour week.

Council socialism is at least potentially better able to liberate people from the subjugation of the division of labour which enslaves them. Not in the vulgar sense that everyone does something different every day, or that there would no longer be any need for the acquisition of highly qualified knowledge. On the contrary: universal free access to higher education would be guaranteed. By radically enlarging the time avalaible for learning and study time over one's lifetime, a periodic change of "profession" would be open to all who desire this. Those who want to spread their 20-hour week over several activities for which they have the necessary knowledge would have the right to do so, insofar as this does not conflict with the overall production plan determined democratically by the majority of the councils.

Council socialism would be able to abolish the danger of war and the use of violence with weapons. The producers can decide to stop producing weapons and to destroy all existing stocks of weapons. This can only be achieved effectively on a global scale, but the first steps in this direction can be taken on a smaller scale.

Finally, council socialism would be able to gradually reduce environmental problems by completely detaching decisions regarding production from profit considerations. Personally, we would favour totally car-free cities and a radical reduction of heavy traffic outside cities as well. But this should be decided by a majority in the councils.

Consequently, council socialism implies a process of the gradual whitering away of bureaucracy and the state. Of course, the problem must be stated more precisely. It is largely a question of definition. In my opinion, teaching staff, health and care personnel, providers of essential services, technicians are not bureaucrats. The real problem begins with managers of high-tech facilities and, above all, arbitrators and conflict resolvers. It is impossible to guarantee every citizen immediate and free access to a high-quality hospital. The doctor-patient or teacher-student relationship also involves at least the risk of authoritarian subordination and power relations. This includes the need for ombudspersons. Could this not lead to abuse of power and concentration of power? We do not want to underestimate the problem. However, we believe that such danger can be greatly reduced. A self-governing council socialism is necessarily highly de-centralised. Extensive powers are reserved for regions and, above all, municipalities. The concentration of power in society as a whole, and even more so internationally, if not worldwide, in the unavoidable functions of administration, mediation and arbitration, can thus be severely limited. A self-governing democracy of councils gives citizens great opportunities to control and challenge these administrators, mediators and arbitrators. A good example is the so-called judicial apparatus. Group and individual conflicts will also exist in council socialism. Historical experience has shown that the written law and the independence of the judges are indispensable conditions of political freedom and democracy. However, the independence of judges is not necessarily bound to the institution of the judge for life, which in turn, according to experience, can lead to arbitrariness and abuse of power. Therefore, the regular re-election of judges as well as a generalisation of the jury system is an additional guarantee of political freedom.

On the other hand, anarcho-syndicalists and ultra-leftists argue that political parties are "bourgeois" entities that tend to manipulate assemblies. In contrast, anarcho-syndicalists take a stand closer to that of classical socialists. But what is the alternative? A ban on parties or fractions (the name is irrelevant here)? It would be a fine council socialism, however, to start with such authoritarian bans. And what happens if the majority of the council assemblies do not comply with this ban? Would it have to be enforced by force?

The whole thesis of "manipulation" is unreal. It fails to recognise the deeper reality of the council system. Councils, like elected strike committees, are by their very nature united front structures. They presuppose that all citizens, with the exception of those who call for violence against ethnic minorities, are represented in them. The mass of citizens is not politically homogeneous. Different political histories do not disappear in one fell swoop. The citizens may well represent different group interests. This usually leads to different alternatives, to more or less coherent proposals being put forward to solve specific problems. It is precisely this diversity of parties that reduces the risks of manipulation, because it favours the general politicisation of councils. Rosa Luxemburg's words of warning from 1918 remain more relevant than ever. It is the absence of full political freedom that makes the manipulation of council meetings possible.

In this context, it must be stated that council socialism can only be consolidated worldwide, as a world socialist federation. This does not mean, however, that the first successes cannot be achieved on a more limited scale. However, the unification of this formation can only take place voluntarily, under conditions of strict equality and equal rights for all. This also requires, among other things, that experts/scientists do not have the right to impose a certain consumption pattern on the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, on the grounds that a different choice would entail unacceptable great ecological dangers. The only possibility is a patient attempt at gradual persuasion - while at the same time self-critically doubting whether the aforementioned experts and radical greens can already predict all the scientific advances of the coming decades.

Is council socialism a utopian project in the usual sense of the word, i.e. unrealisable even in the long term? Certainly, there is currently no majority of citizens who are convinced or can be convinced democratically to favour of this model. And by its very nature, council socialism requires the active engagement of such a broad majority. But this fact alone is by no means sufficient to declare council socialism unrealisable in even the long term. Such a conclusion would be just as ignorant and dogmatic as the conviction that its victory is inevitable. Only history, only events, can decide this question. This decision is uncertain. So far, no one has succeeded in scientifically substantiating the contrary thesis.

We can situate the problem in the broader historical framework. Council socialism is a necessary condition of generalised emancipation. To presuppose the inability of people to realise their emancipation is only a barely disguised return to the dogma of original sin. Historical experience confirms the ability of the human race to grasp emancipation projects and realize such projects. The struggle against slavery lasted over two thousand five hundred years. But it was won. The struggle against corvée labour lasted half a millennium. It was won. The fight against the Inquisition, with its torturers, pyres, burnings of wise women, took at least four hundred years. It was won. It took two hundred years for the struggle for universal, equal, secret suffrage for all to secure the basis of political rights for citizens. There is no reason to suppose that the struggle for the abolition of wage labour (our fathers and mothers not unjustifiably used the term "wage slavery") could not be as successful - and take less time. 

There is no doubt that this historical record must be put into perspective. There is no straightforward progress of emancipation. After the French and Russian revolutions came Hitler and Stalin. Slavery never completely disappeared. It is unfolding again today in a devastating fashion. The denial of basic human rights characterises many states. Torture and other cruel practices are practiced more and more. Even in countries where democracy exists, whole groups of people are excluded from voting. The traditional socialist critique of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, i.e. Of purely formal and indirect democracy, retains its relevance more than ever. How real is freedom of the press, for example, when the overwhelming majority of citizens do not have the material means to found and distribute their own independent newspapers and magazines, to publish media not monopolised by a handful of pressmagnates? 

But precisely because such setbacks of historical progress are undeniable, council socialism has a historical chance to prevail in the long run. For a growing number of women and men are rebelling against the evils described. The extent of this rebellion is not declining but increasing, even if not in all countries and to varying degrees from country to country. Certainly, this massive uprising is still mainly characterised by a "single issue" objective. It therefore remains fragmented and discontinuous and does not yet cohere into the striving for an alternative social order. 

The huge dangers facing humanity no longer present us with the choice of "socialism or barbarism", but "socialism or the physical destruction of humanity". The alternative is clear. Either increasing conflicts, growing inequality and egoism, increasingly short-sighted "realpolitik" – then the increasing conflict and violence will be our doom. The other route is that of growing self-activity, increasing rebellion, a growing ability of people to take their fate into their own hands, more equality and solidarity without borders. With this, we will succeed before it is too late.

i This piece first appeared under the title 'Confession of a notoriously unswerving leftist' in a collection dedicated to Peter von Oertzen; 'Zwischen Rätesozialismus und Reformprojekt' (eds. Karin Benz-Overhage, Wolfgang Jüttner and Horst Peter). 

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