Review Anti-bolshevik Communism – CWO


Julho, 1979.

In sixty years of activity the political career of Paul Mattick has spanned the experience of the working class in the era of capital’s decadence. As a member of the KAPD (Communist Workers’ Party of Germany) he was active in the struggle for communism at the height of the last revolutionary wave (1917-21). During the counter-revolution (via the journal Living Marxism) he helped to keep alive some of the insights of the German Left of the revolutionary wave. He also has defended the notion of a captialist crisis based on the operation of the law of value; and has tried to separate the state capitalist system of Russia et. al. from the communist society envisaged by Marx[1]. However, as today’s revolutionaries are dragging themselves away from the political murk of the counter-revolution, Mattick has shown himself unable to break with the myths of councilism and relate to the new revolutionary milieu which has grown up. Still influenced by the experience of the counter-revolution and maintaining a profound pessimism in the proletariat’s ability to fulfil its historic task, Mattick’s politics and affiliations today leave him without anything to offer the coming revolution. Consequently, this collection of essays, whilst having individual points of merit (e. g. showing how Stalin only executed Trotsky’s programme), actually stands in the way of a clearer analysis of events in Russia. As such, it also stands in the way of the development of a clear revolutionary perspective.

The attitude taken by revolutionaries to the Russian Revolution, in particular, and to the European revolutionary wave following World War events. For Mattick, as with all other councilists, this period of proletarian history is reduced to a lament. To begin with the Russian Revolution was all a Bolshevik plot,

“In Russia, it is true, the Bolshevik Party adavanced the slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’, but only for opportunistic reasons, in order to reach its true goal in the authoritarian rule of the Bolshevik Party”. (Introduction p. xi)


“The laws of motion of the Russian Revolution had been foreseen by Lenin with remarkable clarity long before its outbreak…” (p. 30)

This is the basic credo of the councilists and has been repeated many times since. The tale of how proletarian purity of the workers’ councils or soviets was defiled by the filthy Bolsheviks under the leadership of the evil power-seeking genius, Lenin, gives us a horror film unmatched by any from Hammer studios.

However, a moment’s reflection shows this vision to be based on remarkably similar premises to our councilists’ own demon – the present day Leninists. For the latter also the working class was a passive factor in its own revolution (naturally, since it could only achieve a “trade union consciousness”) and for them also it was the brilliant leadership of Lenin which produced the successful seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. But in fact no “Leninist” is so awestruck by “the Lenin legend” as the man who has spent more words in condemning it than any other – i. e. Mattick. And no one has a more ambiguous attitude to the working class in revolution than Mattick. Like all ouvrierists, he “hopes” (and ever more faintly at that) for a spoteless, democratic working class revolution where the workers will spontaneously rise up and create a communist utopia. Real revolutions are, for fim however, another matter because the workers’ actions are so disappointing. After telling us (on page 166) that Marx was too optimistic “about the workers’ capacity to develop a socialist consciousness” he concludes that there was nothing worth learning from past proletarian experience. The revolutionary wave after the First World War becomes for him an “ocean of mediocrity” (page 93) or else should be been simply as “minor frictions” before capitalism “stabilised itself”, which we can all quietly forget about.

Mattick would like to forget about the past revolutions because he cannot understand them and therefore has nothing to learn from them. His utter confusion as to the relationship between the Bolsheviks and the working class, a subject which he always tries to avoid, is apparent in the one or two comments he does make. On the one hand, he maintains “the workers were fooled” position by suggesting that the Bolsheviks were “a party of professional revolutionists, willing to usurp power, if necessary, against the will of the majority of the working class” (p. 92) or that, whilst the Russian soviets were the proletarian element in the Russian Revolution, “the Bolshevik Party dictatorship was merely the Russian version of the later Nazi labour front”. (page 103). At other times Mattick realizes that this separation does not square up with the facts. After all, 80% od the workers had voted for Bolshevik delegates to the soviets on the basis of the Bolshevik programme though Mattick chooses to remain blind to this. He resolves this dilemma by concluding them, then “the workers brought the bourgeois revolution to its conclusion in Russia” (page 53). Thus, for Mattick, the whole proletarian experience of 1917-1921 was nothing but negative. Workers’ councils are good, political parties are all “capitalist” (page 136). Even the political party which Mattick joined, and which sought to prevent the degeneration of Bolshevism, the KAPD, is dismissed because “it seemed more Bolshevik than the Bolsheviks” (page 97). In this way Mattick divorces himself from the post-war revolutionary wave. In many ways he is completely logical.

He sees acutely that state capitalism is not communism and that it cannot be denied that this totalitarian monster did eventually emerge from the Russian Revolution. He is also quite right when he rejects the Trotskyist version of the degeneration of the revolution as simply a Stalinist counter-revolution. The counter-revolution had succeeded long before the death of Lenin in 1924. However, all this does not mean that we reject all ideas of a “Thermidor” as Mattick does in his essay on “Bolshevism and Stalinism”. To do this means to reject the fact that there was a single proletarian or communist tendency in the earliest stages of the revolution. Even Mattick cannot deny this and tells us that before 1921 “there was actually some experimentation in Russia in the communist sense” (p. 55) but, hel tells us, this can be dismissed since it only came about because Lenin “was hopelessly drawn along in the wake of the workers” (p. 54). Yet it is irrelevant in this context whether Lenin was led or did the leading. (The fixation on this factor is of course the unifying element in the equally nonsensical notions of councilists and “Leninists”). The real question is, “was the direction of the revolution tending towards a communist mode of production”? Mattick can’t answer this since he believes it to be a non-question. For him the workers’ councils’ democratic integrity is the first criteria and unless that is clearly established then the rest is not worth considering. This prevents him and other councilists from arriving at a richer analysis of the Russian Revolution. It also leaves unresolved the contradiction posed by Matticks various statements that the workers were deceived by the Bolsheviks or were themselves bourgeois yet could still, between 1917-1921, have enough power and class consciousness to force Lenin to take communist measures.

Hitherto we have only expressed our arguments in terms of the conundrums of councilism but we can only arrive at a more coherent analysis of the Russian Revolution by asking different questions. What follows ia a summary of our views[2].

The first premise that separates communists from councilists is the Marxist one that “being determines consciousness” and not the other way round. Ideas are not the motive force of history but rather the reflection of material circumstances. Thus it is pure idealism to put down the failure of the Russian Revolution solely to the errouneous views of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It also leaves unexplained facts. Lenin did write in 1902 that “the workers can only achieve a trade union consciousness” but this was in a specific argument with “economists” (i. e. those who saw wage struggles as the epitome of the class struggle) and it was before the wave of mass strikes which hit Europe in the ten years before the last World War. In the face of a revolutionary outburst Lenin reflected the new lessons of the proletariat. He came round to accept the idea of soviets after the 1905 experience and in 1917 he produced his best work “State and Revolution”. The Bolsheviks thus took their programme (after hesitations and confusion) from the proletariat and it was this programme which the masses supported in the elections to the soviets. Councilists like Mattick will dismiss this as so much Bolshevik opportunism which hid their real aims (to establish state capitalism). However, the Bolshevik error in this respect was the error of the whole proletariat in 1917-21 – it is only the experience of insight into the nature of communism and capitalism. But even the Bolsheviks’ “wrong ideas” underwent change in the face of the needs of the revolution and in spite of their ideas, under prompting from the class and the hostility of the world bourgeoisie, they did take some steps towards communism. (Mattick’s “experimentation”). This, it is true, was not a linear path, nor did it avoid enormous deformities[3] tendencies to this movement. In the first place, you can only have a proletariat and fighting the world bourgeoisie single-handed almost completely wiped out the class-conscious failure of the European working class. Secondly, and connectedly, the reached with the petty bourgeoisie inside Russia (the peasantry) and the international bourgeoisie elsewhere. For us therefore, 1921 marks evidenced in the Kronstadt massacre, the introduction of NEP and the expulsion of the KAPD (for trying to remain true to Bolshevik, i. e. revolutionary principles) from the Comintern.

After this time state capitalism replaced communism as the programme of the Bolsheviks who thereby ceased to be “Bolshevik”. This brings us to another of Mattick’s little tricks – that of guilt by association. Seeing no “Thermidor” allows him to label anything in Russia since 1917 as “Bolshevik”, whether it is Stalin’s purges or Khruschev’s “peaceful coexistence”. For him there is a direct lineal descent. Thus the sins of the present are heaped on the revolutionaries of the past. One can only ask why Mattick stops with the Bolsheviks? Why doesn’t he go back to discover the real root of reaction in the writings of Marx as other councilists like the Cardanite group, Solidarity have done?

Mattick’s analysis is an analysis of despair. Having decided that the workers were fooled by the Bolsheviks in Russia he finds them equally stupid in Germany, to such an extent that his ultimate explanation for the defeat of the European revolutionary wave is that “world capitalism” was going through a stabilisation process” (page 99). How capitalism achieved this stability he never tells us, though we would suggest that the scattered corpses of the European working class bare adequate testimony in themselves.

Mattick’s despair even extends to the KAPD. He laments that the German revolution was “mediocre” and could only offer slogans. Yet in terms of the content of communism Mattick hasn’t even that. For him workers’ councils and more workers’ councils provide the only answer. In fact he makes such a fetish about these councils that he turns the world on its head. Twice he tells us that,

“workers’ self organisation is no guarantee against policies and actions contrary to proletarian class interests”. (p. 224 & p. xi)

The guarantee Mattick gives us is the council. Unfortunately is precisely a high level of self-activity of a class-conscious proletariat which is the only guarantee of a communist future. As we argued about the Russian Revolution, its successes and failures stemmed from the level of such activity. No amount of constitution-mongering, of reshaping or organisational forms can change this.

Further, the workers’ council is itself only a precondition for communism, representing the rupture of the proletariat from the bourgeois state. After that the communist programme has to be fough for within the councils. In Russia the soviets were bourgeois as long as they were dominated by the class collaborationist Mensheviks. It wasn’t until the proletariat opted for Bolshevism that it opted for communism. And the Bolshevik success was not simply a question of a passive class voting it to do what it wanted. Throughout all the organs of the embryonic proletarian order an active participation of the workers ensured the movement towards communism. It took two and a half years of devastating civil war to destroy this and to create a party dictatorship in opposition to a decimated proletariat. This is the real lesson of the Russian Revolution.

* “Anti-Bolshevik Communism” by Paul Mattick is published by Merlin Press.

[1] Though we now find many of his analyses flawed today. See R.P. 1, “Theories of State Capitalism” and R. P. 11, “Crisis Theory and the I.C.C.”.

[2] Expressed more fully in R.P. (Revolutionary Perspectives) 4 in “Russia – Revolution and Counter-Revolution 1917-23”.  

[3] Such as the failure to hold elections to the Soviets after 1918.