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The Groups of Council Communists and the Spanish Civil War

Note: I wrote this for a senior seminar required for my undergraduate degree in history. It dates to 2007-05-02. The paper doesn't have much focus and the writing was very much rushed (I spent too much time reading). Still, there's some interesting material in here. That was especially true when it was written, years before a full-length biography of Mattick was published. At any rate, the paper got me my degree, and now I'm finally posting it because I am back to studying the history of American socialism.

What's below is very nearly what I turned in for class. I have not tried to fix any flaws.

You may also wish to read my paper "Comrades Across the Ocean:" the German-Dutch and American Socialist Lefts, 1912-1917. It is like a prequel to this. It mentions many of the same people, parties, and publications.

-- 2020-05-10

This paper, as the rather unimaginative title suggests, has two objectives. The first is to trace the steps that led to a council communist movement emerging in America in the form of the Groups of Council Communists (GCC). The Groups of Council Communists, which have almost universally been overlooked, will be the major focus of this paper. The second, related task is to examine the GCC's writings on The Spanish Civil war in order to answer a number of questions concerning the characterization of council communism generally and American council communism in particular.

Council communism, as a largely forgotten political theory and movement, needs an explanation. In line with typical characterizations of council communism, David McLellan writes in Marxism after Marx that "the most comprehensive ideological challenge to Soviet Leninism in the inter-war period was concentrated around the ideas that came to be known as 'Council Communism.'"[01] Though council communism appears as something distinctly identifiable only in the early 1920s, the political tendencies that evolved to council communist positions waged the struggle against reformism and opportunism that rived European Social Democracy from the 1890s onward.[02] Council communism, then, drew upon some of the same inspirations as other ostensibly revolutionary currents like Leninism.

It was in the Dutch SDAP (Sociaal Democratische Arbeiders Partij; Social Democratic Workers Party) that the first activists to reach council communist positions were grouped. In the SDAP the tension between the commitment to a revolutionary perspective and strategy and opportunism was apparent as early as 1901-1903 when Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter and others challenged the party leadership on a number of issues. Against these dissenters, party leader Troelstra "suggested that the party had more important things to do than simply pursue the class struggle and promote socialism."[03] As this battle in the SPAD continued apace over the next few years, Pannekoek's already unique emphasis on the subjective factors, i.e., the consciousness of the proletariat and its willingness to fight, was profoundly reinforced by the 1903 strike wave in the Netherlands, in which thousands of workers left their jobs without the support of the leadership of their unions and the SDAP. In Pannekoek's mind, the strikes "confirmed the primacy of the masses, rather than the organization, as the key agent of socialist transformation."[04] Over the course of the next decade, Pannekoek, living in Germany, defended the massive Prussian suffrage protests against the leadership of German Social Democracy and took part in the wildcat strikes of the workers in Hamburg. These struggles not only validated his emphasis on the self-activity of the working class, but suggested to him that this activity would often take place outside of and against the working class's "own" organizations.

The spontaneous uprising of the German working class and the mutiny of large sections of the Navy and Army in November 1918 resulted in fall of the Kaiser's regime and the surrender of the German military. The SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; Social Democratic Party of Germany) took power immediately and effectively put a halt to the incipient revolutionary movement (dating back to the factory moments in 1917 that operated outside of and against the unions) that had swept through much of Germany, which ensured that names of SPD leaders like Ebert and Noske were synonymous with traitor for many workers in the years to come.[05] Those to the left of the SPD, then, wasted no time in founding the KDP (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands; Communist Party of German) in late 1918.

Following the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring and others during a failed uprising in 1919, leadership of the KPD passed to Paul Levi. Under Levi's control, the party quickly demonstrated, as one author puts it, that it "favoured the worst deviations of social democracy: the cult of organization for organization's sake, parliamentarianism, unionism, leader-worship."[06] In March 1920, still without realizing that the opportunistic "deviations" of the KDP were in fact orders from Moscow, Pannekoek wrote World Revolution and Communist Tactics, which stressed the differences between Eastern and Western Europe and defended the left-wing's disagreements with Moscow. Soon thereafter, the left communists, who in the meantime had been expelled from the KDP, formed the 50,000 strong KAPD (Kommunistische Arbeiter-Partei Deutschlands; Communist Workers' Party of Germany). The party sent Otto Rühle to Moscow to seek admission to the Communist International (or Comintern), but what he saw there led him, on the eve of the Third International's second congress, to pledge that the KAPD would never join. At the same time, Lenin was preparing Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disease, a fierce attack on the positions which where held by a number of "communist lefts" inside and outside of the Moscow-sanctioned parties in Western Europe.

Shortly after returning from Russia, Rühle laconically described the gulf between Russia and the West in a short piece entitled "Moscow and Us." He also declared that socialism in Russia was "a political socialism without a base. A theoretical construction. A set of bureaucratic regulations. A collection of decrees existing only on paper. A phrase for purposes of agitation. And an awful disappointment."[07] Rühle was the first council communist to propose that Bolsheviks had succeeded only in brushing away the vestiges of feudalism and establishing the basis of a modern capitalism (albeit run by the state). This notion quickly gained currency amongst the German and Dutch left communists. Though not the first to identify revolutionary Russia as state capitalist -- after all, even Lenin insisted that the Russian economy was capitalist -- they were certainly the first to study this question in depth and draw meaningful conclusions from this realization.[08]

By 1920 or 1921 it became possible to speak of council communism as something distinct from the wider left communist currents that likewise maintained an attitude of intransigent opposition to capitalism and Moscow's dictates. Above all else, the council communists' were distinguished by their rejection of traditional methods of organization, a conclusion best exemplified by Otto Rühle's statement that "the revolution is not a party affair." Counter to the stultifying mental conditioning of what they sometimes referred to as "leader politics," the council communists "argued that revolutionary tactics had to aim at increasing the power, autonomy, and class-consciousness of the workers."[09] Marcel van der Linden, a social historian well versed in Marxian movements, has summarized five "starting points" that were the basis of council communist theory:

Firstly, capitalism is in decline and should be abolished immediately. Secondly, the only alternative to capitalism is a democracy of workers' councils, based on an economy controlled by the working class. Thirdly, the bourgeoisie and its social-democratic allies are trying to save capitalism from its fate by beans of 'democratic' manipulation of the working class. Fourthly, in order to hasten the establishment of a democracy of councils, this must be consistently resisted. This means, on the one hand, boycotting all parliamentary elections and, on the other hand, systematically fighting against the old trade unions (which are organs for joint management of capitalism). Finally, Soviet-type societies are not an alternative to capitalism but, rather, a new form of capitalism.[10]

To summarize, then, a distinct political trajectory that led to council communism in the years after WWI emerged in the first years of the 20th century in the Netherlands, where left-wing militants of the SDAP emphasized the autonomy of the working class. The Dutch left enjoyed international prominence and esteem prior to the Russian revolution, but afterwards their importance diminished as the Russian model was emulated across Europe. As we shall see in the next section, which traces the history of council communism in the United States until 1945, this process was mirrored in the United States.

Historians have paid little attention to the Groups of Council Communists -- the first council communist group in the United States. Van der Linden notes that Paul Mattick, the group's leading figure, is alone among major council communists in that no scholarly monograph has been devoted to his life and work.[11] Often the GCC is literally relegated to footnotes in academic works, figuring only peripherally in discussions of the European council communist movement or the numerous articles analyzing the economic debates that Mattick engaged in the 1930s. Even partisan political literature has given the GCC short shrift. The correspondences of GCC members and contributors and other primary sources may yet shed light on the organization and its activities. In this paper, I have combined information from primary and secondary sources, published and unpublished, in order to tell the story of Groups of Council Communists as completely as possible at this junction.

Before the Russian Revolution, the names of Pannekoek and Gorter were much better known to American socialists than those of Lenin and or Trotsky.[12] Gorter and Pannekoek frequently contributed to International Socialist Review and New Review, publications tied to the left-wing of the U.S. socialist movement. The quality of these articles mattered just as much as their quantity; they were simply more sophisticated than anything the Americans mustered at the time.[13] The second reason for their eminence can be found in J.S. Rutgers, an energetic Dutchman who devoted himself to spreading the views of the Dutch left in the U.S. Rutgers financed and promoted the Socialist Propaganda League, the left-wing of the Socialist Party, as well as its publication, The Internationalist, the first magazine in the U.S. that was devoted exclusively to the position of the socialist movement's left-wing.[14] Rutgers even introduced to the U.S. Pannekoek's concept of mass action, which was quickly adapted to suit prevailing conditions in the United States. However, in the wake of the Russian revolution, the influence and even memory of the Dutch left was completely submerged as Trotsky and Lenin became household names and the Russian model of revolution and party-building was quickly emulated by American left-wing parties, which were either fledgling or ideologically rootless, and in either case susceptible to lure of something that appeared to have a proven track record. For nearly the next twenty years, there was nothing for Rutgers's work to serve as a prologue to.

It was only in the mid-1930s that the positions of the Dutch left returned to American shores in a significant way. Paul Mattick, a German émigré, was absolutely instrumental in that process. A brief biography-cum-obituary of Paul Mattick, published in 1980 in a council communist journal Mattick contributed to, is the most comprehensive source for the details of his life. Mattick was born in 1904 in Pomerania to "class conscious proletarian parents," where he led a rough childhood.[15] According to one of his later American associates, "he was educated only until twelve, when he was sent to work, and he saw a lot of kids around him die of tuberculosis."[16] In 1918, at the age of 14, he started an apprenticeship as a toolmaker in the Siemens factory, where he was soon nominated as the apprentices' delegate in the workers' council that had been set up in the revolutionary ferment. This political activity resulted in his first arrest. As things died down, he moved to Cologne at 17 to look for work in a different factory, and there he was soon imprisoned for a second time. After his release, Mattick continued making contacts in the radical workers' movement and devoted more time to writing. The decline of this movement and unemployment prompted Mattick to move to the U.S in 1926.

There, "in the linguistic isolation of an American small town he found for the first time the opportunity for the study of the literature of the revolutionary movement."[17] At the same time, Mattick was corresponding with the German and Dutch council communists who were then, after a serious decline in their organizational fortunes, regrouping and redoubling their theoretical work. What began as in informal discussion group in the Netherlands in 1924 was formalized in 1927 as the Group of International Communists (GIC), an organization that eschewed traditional political activity and conceived of itself as "small 'work group' charged with clarifying basic insights about the nature of the class struggle and the council system within the working class."[18]

Soon a reinvigorated Mattick re-entered the revolutionary movement. In the late 1920s, he moved to Chicago and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which he apparently felt was the American organization closest to the council communist unions he had belonged to in Germany.[19] Mattick wrote a program from the Chicago IWW branch that stressed the importance of the objective decline of capitalism, but he soon realized that the moribund IWW was not the place for him. He then attempted in 1931 to bring back the Chicago Arbeiter-Zeitung, a paper once associated with the Haymarket martyrs and the heyday of Chicago radicalism, but his efforts were outdone by the German-language paper of the Communist Party USA, which stooped so low as to level personal insults at Mattick.[20]

In 1934, Mattick's fortunes changed. With a number of associates who had been expelled from the Proletarian Party, he formed the United Workers Party (which soon changed its name to the Groups of Council Communists [GCC]), which began to publish in October 1934 a mimeographed monthly named International Council Correspondence. The GCC was structured along the same lines as the GIC, with which it was in close contact. Articles that appeared in German in Räte-Korrespondenz, the German-language review of the GIC, were frequently translated into English for the readers of International Council Correspondence, and following the demise of the Räte-Korrespondenz in the late 1930s, ICC was the premier council communist publication. Gerber notes that the GCC's primary strength was the high quality of its theoretical activity, which was presented in International Council Correspondence.[21]

From the texts of International Council Correspondence alone, the composition and function of the renamed the Groups of Council Communists is difficult to determine precisely. Given the importance of the publication, which in many accounts is practically synonymous with the GCC, at first glance it would not be unreasonable to wonder if the GCC in fact existed in name only. Digging deeper, however, it certainly appears that the GCC was in fact an organization with a life in addition to publishing International Council Correspondence. Moreover, both in composition and in the audience their efforts targeted, the GCC was predominately a proletarian organization. The first issue of International Council Correspondence contains, for instance, the following notice:

Our group in Buffalo, N.Y., have conducted quite a few out-door street meetings this summer, and the workers responded by the hundreds. It was a relief for these workers to hear something about their own real problems in contrast to the C.P speakers, who incessantly harp on the beauties of "the Workers' Fatherland".--Our Buffalo group is organizing a class on "Revolutionary Marxism"

The Chicago group opens its annual Worker's Forum on Sun. Oct. 7. It will continue every Sunday evening thru-out the winter. Oct 8. a Study class on Marxian Economics will commence. The regular weekly meetings of the group on Wed. evenings are much better attended now during the summer months, and the comrades are enthusiastically active.[22]

Fairfield Porter, an influential American artist and sympathizer of the council communists' (as well as financial supporter whose largesse enabled International Council Correspondence to continue publication[23]), attended one of these forums in 1938 and provided an interesting description in a letter to a friend:

They (who seem not to be just Paul Mattick's stooges -- his ideas do not dominate the others and no one wants them to) run a forum now in an effort to influence the masses, the first had sixty people -- the group has twenty people and the second is to be tonight. The forums like the magazines are supposed to be a collective effort -- one of the group, or several ones, talk, and then the audience asks questions or tell their points of view. Since some of them (not all) have the belief that communism is the probably inevitable development of society and all of them that Marxism is not a philosophy but a description of reality, they are freer from the minister-or missionary-talking-down-to-his-audience than any other radicals I know -- for anyone's real experience of society will be, in so far as it is real, Marxist. Also there is no interpreting of the word and no Marxian snobbery. And at the discussions where they frankly are out to enlighten there is not yet the spirit of having the last word and winning arguments by tricks. They are very serious. They want anyone, they do not insist on workers only, to come. And they do not hide their views to avoid antagonizing people. The whole thing was on a mature level...[24]

It seems that this proselytizing -- or, rather, intellectual engagement -- of the working class paid off. In William Isaacs's profile of the Groups of Council Communists collected in his comprehensive survey of 1930s American Marxist groups, he notes that "members of this movement have been recruited from former organizations as well as from among workers with no previous Marxian affiliation."[25] Furthermore, in a letter to Pannekoek, Mattick claimed that the Groups were composed exclusively of industrial workers and that ICC had a circulation of 1,000 copies.[26] Lastly, rather than considering themselves distinct from the working class, Mattick declared that "the Groups do not claim to be acting for the workers, but consider themselves as those members of the working class who have, for one reason or another, recognized evolutionary trends toward capitalism's downfall, and who attempt to coordinate the present activities of the workers to that end."[27]

In keeping with the notion of acting as a platform for the working class to develop its own ideas, International Council Correspondence welcomed contributions from anyone. If the piece was not felt to reflect precisely the ideas of the group, a signature or initials were attached to it. Otherwise all other articles were unaccredited. "With the exception of articles translated from European sources," Mattick claimed that "all the material published in Council Correspondence was written by employed or unemployed workers."[28] The style of most of the articles was straightforward and plainly worded, though not necessarily simple. In terms of content, the material stuck to concrete and contemporary issues, such as labor unions and political parties, contemporary, the New Deal, the prophesized Second World War, and so on. Even so, the publication was criticized by Pannekoek as too intellectual: "often [it] looks like an intricate and difficult splitting of curled hairs, and sometimes I wonder how such a clear and simple a theory as Marx'[s] can be made so difficult by misunderstandings and learned or quasi-learned complications."[29] As Mattick himself later acknowledged, "throughout the existence of International Council Correspondence no attempt was made to simplify its style or content to suit less-educated workers. The intention was to raise their level of understanding and to acquaint them with the complexities of social, economic, and political issues."[30]

Pannekoek's criticisms only increased when International Council Correspondence was replaced in early 1938 by an elegant-looking, printed bimonthly or quarterly entitled Living Marxism. The change was intended to draw in new members and subscribers, the latter of whom especially would help finance the journal's continued publication.[31] The content of the articles became more abstract and sophisticated, longer and more verbose. Even the titles of articles seem less provocative in this incarnation. Nonetheless, the political viewpoint was the same, and, judging by Porter's description of the meeting quoted above, which must have occurred in 1938, efforts to reach out to the working class were not terribly diminished or altered. Still, the necessity for more subscribers -- an ironic imposition for a communist group -- prompted yet another name change in 1942, this time to the innocuous New Essays. Sadly, the Groups of Council Communists had disappeared by 1940, leaving only an increasingly detached magazine.[32] The decline in the fortunes of organized council communism can perhaps be explained by the conjunction of the economic recovery of the late 1930s -- which must have diminished the appeal of the council communists' eschatological rhetoric -- and the United States' entry into the Second World War, which undoubtedly distanced the council communist, unrepentant in their opposition to the 'imperialist war, from the majority of political active workers and intellectuals.[33] By 1943, New Essays, an untenable venture, ceased publication and organized council communism disappeared from the United States.

In order to further explore the positions of the contributors to International Council Correspondence, as well as to compare the Americans to the council communist movement internationally, an in-depth analysis of one aspect of their activity is necessary. Nothing is better for this than examining the positions they took on, and the lessons they drew from, the Spanish Civil War. Just as the GCC considered the Spanish Civil War the "the model stage" on which "the play of the next world war was rehearsed," so the Spanish Civil War was something of a testing ground for the Groups of Council Communists.[34] Despite the excitement for the cause of anti-fascism that drew in so many on the left, the Groups of Council Communists took a critical position -- obviously against the rebel military -- but also against the Popular Front and the Anarchists. We shall see that it was the theoretical consistency of the GCC that permitted them to maintain their positions in the face of the excited pronunciations coming from the republican side as well as the atrocities and massacres occurring in the Rebel zone.

There are other reasons why examining the position of the GCC on the Spanish Civil War is a useful exercise.

The first reason is primarily historiographic. In The Dutch and German Communist Left, a minute examination of council communist groups and theory up to 1950 written by Phillipe Bourrinet (with the assistance of the International Communist Current) as a doctoral dissertation, the positions of the American and Dutch council communists on the Spanish Civil War are briefly compared. In his account, the Americans are portrayed as supposedly more sympathetic to and less critical of the republican forces fighting the Spanish Civil War than were the Dutch council communists, whose positions, therefore, are for all intents and purposes deemed more advanced.[35] Without addressing the logic underlying that judgment, the actual evidence marshaled to Bourrinet's position can be challenged. The authors of The Dutch and German Communist Left practically rest their entire argument about the American council communists on a statement made by Paul Mattick three decades after the Spanish Civil War. Mattick's comment is as follows: "the anti-fascist civil war of Spain (...) found the council communists almost naturally -- despite their Marxist orientation -- on the side of the anarcho-syndicalists, even though circumstances forced the latter to sacrifice their own principles for the prolonged struggle against the common fascist enemy."[36] Whether this glib statement accurately represents the position of the GCC shall be seen below. As for the Bourrinet's second claim used to support the argument -- the statement that "Karl Korsch, a collaborator of Mattick's group, made himself the leader of the cause of anarchist collectivization" -- can be dismissed out of hand. First, the two articles referred to in which he supposedly takes up "the cause of anarchist collectivization" are by no means uncritical. Second, both of these articles were signed, indicating that they did not reflect the general position of the GCC, and in the same issue in which the second article was published, there appears a note expressly stating that Korsch's viewpoint was not shared by the majority of the GCC.[37]

A second reason for examining the council communists -- here the GCC -- during the Spanish Civil War is to gain a more precise understanding of council communism. Put another way, the positions of the GCC (as much as their Dutch counterparts) demonstrate that council communism is not, as it were, Anarchism is decked out in Marxist terminology, which is an accusation and claim made by council communism's Marxist detractors and Anarchist sympathizers, respectively. Likewise, our examination will show that it is at least misleading to characterize council communism at this time as an "economist theory ... For [which] the dictatorship of the proletariat was economic rather than political."[38]

A final reason is that the perspective of the GCC is unique. As they put it so simply, "of interest to us are precisely those aspects of the Spanish Civil War which have no interest at all for anti-fascist organizations."[39] This will hopefully be evident in the following reconstruction of the GCC's positions.

Before examining the council communists' analysis of the Spanish Civil War, space must be devoted to their conception of fascism. In "The Role of Fascism," a timely contribution to the July 1936 edition of International Council Correspondence, Pannekoek (writing under the initials J.H.) detailed the origins of fascism and what it meant for the working class. For Pannekoek and the council communists generally, fascism was the "organizing [of] the petty capitalist and middle classes ... into a mass organization strong enough to check and beat the proletarian organizations."[40] As a strongly authoritarian tendency which "puts the state above the citizen," "it is clear that this form of government corresponds to the needs of modern capitalism" more than democracy.[41] Both the of large-scale concentration of capital and the world crisis of the 30s, as well as "the preparing for world war," necessitated that the state take a more active role in organizing the economy. Here Pannekoek notes that there exist "points of similarity between fascist Italy and Germany, and bolshevist Russia," though in Russia private capital is "not tolerated."[42] In Germany, "ruling the state and ruling industry" were "merged into one."[43] As important as the economic reorganization of capitalism were the political changes fascism forced on society: "Triumphant fascism boasts that it has blocked the way to communism forever."[44] Nonetheless, Pannekoek argued that fascist autocracy was quite a good thing from the point of view of those interested in revolution. Fascism "only means that for the workers the smooth and peaceful way of growing to power is blocked."[45] With the old working class parties destroyed, thus was "restored naturally class unity." With the working class as a whole in the same dire straits, the workers would be in a situation in which they would have to fend for themselves, to act on their own initiative. A few months before Pannekoek's essay appeared, International Council Correspondence had run another insightful article on fascism. In "Class Struggle in War," taken from Räte-Korrespondenz, the anonymous author argued that although "the conditions of the workers in 'democratic' countries is generally better than those where fascism rules," this difference was based only on the democratic countries' greater wealth, which was in part derived from their colonial holdings.[46] Regarding any struggles to preserve political rights, the author contended that these were futile by their very nature. "The working class never received political privileges," he writes, "until the great labor organizations were able to insure that no 'misuse' of their privileges would occur."[47] When such "misuses" do occur, "political rights, right of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to organize and strike are abolished by the democratic order as efficiently as by the fascists."[48] Therefore, the council communists reached the certain conclusion that "the ruling class in the democratic countries are no less of an enemy to the working class than the master class of the fascist countries."[49]

Even before the Spanish Civil War, Spain had caught the attention of International Council Correspondence's contributors and was deemed a topic worth devoting the journal's limited space. The first mention of Spain is in the brief article "The Spanish Class Struggle" from November 1934.[50] The point expressed in the short piece was that the smoldering civil war waged between right and left since the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1931 was, in their estimation, edging towards the point where the right must attempt to establish a dictatorship. The article makes two other points: first, that Catalonia's bid for regional independence only side-tracked the class struggle, and, second, that out of the confused mess of Communist, Socialist, and anarchist workers, the class struggle itself would forge a working class capable of fighting for its interest regardless of the present-day sectarian divisions. A second article on Spain entitled "The 'Victory' in Spain" was published in April 1936 following the electoral victory of the Popular Front, the bloc of left-wing parties that narrowly beat out the right, which had been in power since 1933. The GCC predicted that "the weakness and disunity of the ruling classes themselves, the impossibility of progressive capitalist development in Spain under the present conditions of permanent world crisis, will sooner or later abolish the present pseudo-democratism in Spain and lead to a new bourgeois dictatorship..."[51] Thus, for the GCC the uprising of the Spanish Army against the Republic and Popular Front government on July 17, 1936 was no surprise.

The response of the Groups of Council Communists was not immediate, but in time for the October 1936 issue -- which bore the headline "The Civil War in SPAIN!" -- the GCC had prepared a 40 page primer on the Spanish Civil War which ranged from the history of Spain to the international implications to the role the working class ought to play.[52] Because this issue of International Council Correspondence also provides a remarkably solid basis for understanding the war and our further investigations, it is necessary to summarize the main points. Additionally, the article provides us with insight into the intellectual rigor that was so frequently displayed in the articles of the GCC.

The October issue begins with a short overview of the history of Spain up until the abdication of the king and the establishment of the Second Republic in 1931. According to the authors, Spain's uniquely feudal character can be explained due to its location and climate, but political and social factors play a larger role. Spain's imperial past bequeathed tremendous wealth upon the feudal classes, whose "luxurious living" was thus "not bound up with the development of the productive forces in Spain" but "whose interests were rather best secured thru the suppression of new upward-struggling classes."[53] However, even this strengthened feudal nobility could not indefinitely hold in check the growth of these productive forces, and this struggle between the progressive bourgeoisie and feudal holdovers was the primary source of tension in Spain. The progressive bourgeoisie was pressed on its other side by the impoverished peasantry and working class. Fearing reaction and revolution, the progressive bourgeoisie failed to make decisive moves, either against the remnants of feudalism or the obstreperous masses. The Popular Front, and the Republic in general, failed to effectively put down the masses and institute "social peace" -- a social peace that, under democracy, could only be achieved by reforms which would encroach on the prerogatives of the landowners and the Church provoked the fascist uprising of July 1936: "the condition of permanent social tension and the lack of clarity with respect to the actual constellation of the class forces was to be ended by way of the fascist dictatorship."[54]

The fascists, of course, were stopped in much of Spain. The workers were pressed to fight fascism to save their very lives. But these initial defensive actions aimed at halting the advance of the fascists were soon carried over into offensive actions which turned "the political defensive struggle against fascism" into "the beginning of a real social revolution."[55] Though the bourgeoisie and "labor fakers" (i.e., the parliamentary parties of the left) were forced to put up with this -- they, too, would be struck down by fascism -- they are waiting, the GCC assured its readers, for an opportune moment to crush the revolution. As a demonstration of this, the GCC quoted an interview with Juan Hernandez, editor of the Communist Party paper, in which Hernandez promised that the anarchists (see below) "will be attended to the day after victory."[56] Despite the momentary congruence of bourgeois and proletarian interests (beating fascism), the GCC insisted upon the necessity of an independent course for the working class: "... the proletariat cannot take up for the interests of the bourgeoisie, or subordinate itself to bourgeois leadership, except under certain pain of being struck down later on."[57] Consequently, the struggle in Spain must be three-way: "Fascism against Democracy and Revolution, this Democracy against Fascism and Revolution, the Revolution against Fascism and bourgeois democracy."[58]

What the GCC identified as the revolution (and it is never explicitly stated how the events qualified as revolutionary) owed much of its success to "the most forward-driving revolutionary element," the anarchists and the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the CNT.[59] Parenthetically it must be noted that anarchism, unlike in almost any country then and now, was a mass movement in Spain; its intellectual influence dwarfed that of Marxism, and in 1934 the CNT had a membership of 1.6 million.[60] The prominence of the anarchists was bolstered by the vital role they played, especially in Catalonia, in putting down the uprising. The GCC at this point firmly believed that the Anarchists had comprehended that the struggle must go beyond defending the Popular Front government or moving it leftwards:

The Spanish revolution receives from Barcelona [the stronghold of the anarchist movement] its true character. If the miners of the Asturias succeed in getting out of the claws of the fascists, the revolution will roll on to Madrid and create in Spain a wholly different situation. Then the Spanish struggle will dispense with the last bourgeois phrases and come to light as a struggle between Capital and Labor.[61]

The remainder of the issue delved into the connection between international affairs and the Spanish Civil War. Practically every article on the Spanish Civil War that appeared in International Council Correspondence and its successors engaged in this intensely feverish, almost obsessive speculation that often contradicted the previous issue's predictions. Suffice it to say that the merits of this focus were twofold. First, the GCC correctly predicted that a second world war was on the horizon. This the GCC had repeated ad nauseam since at least 1935. Second, the GCC maintained that foreign policies of the democratic countries were no more principled than those of fascist countries. As it was put in one article, "not only [do] the fascists consider a treaty merely a piece of paper, but ... this applies to any other capitalist country including England. And if Mussolini declared cynically when conquering Abyssinia he only followed English colonial policies, he can truthfully point to historical events."[62]

In short, the position of the first GCC text following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War showed great faith in the anarchists to spread the revolution, but also concluded on the somber note that the most likely contribution the Spanish revolutionists will make is than of an example which will inspire the workers in the next revolutionary wave.[63]

By March 1937, in the article "What Next in Spain?," the GCC had concluded that, while "the further course of the Spanish civil war cannot as yet be accurately predicted ... at present there are less probabilities to be taken into consideration than five months ago."[64] For Spain, there were three possibilities: fascist victory, compromise between the fascists and the Republic, or a republican victory. In the case of the latter, "a real economic revolution after the possible defeat of Franco would mean at once the open intervention of all the capitalist powers."[65] Significantly, the GCC by 1937 had already re-evaluated the positions of their October 1936; now the "real" revolution had yet to be made. "What Next in Spain?" contains even harsher criticisms. Indeed, already the GCC had concluded that the revolutionary movement had essentially been defeated. Harking back to the logic of articles like Pannekoek's "The Role of Fascism" and Räte-Korrespondenz's "Class Struggle in War," which stressed above all else the need for the working class to maintain its own independent position, the GCC argued that once the "Valencia government and also the anarchists ... unified the military forces of the nation ... the struggle in Spain is no longer one of the working class against fascism and capitalism, but a struggle between two armies of two different governments."[66] Nevertheless, the council communists consistently understood that "there was no choice in the matter." Between certain death at the hands of the fascists or exploitation (but life and a modicum of liberty) at the hands of the Republic, most workers were compelled to choose the latter. The council councils, showing both humanity and realism, never once faulted the Spanish workers for this. But they did point out that as the struggle devolved into one between two armies, "the revolutionary elements become less and less important. The 'spirit of today' has nothing to do anymore with a revolutionary outlook."[67] What small gains that had been made were rolled back by the government (which the erstwhile revolutionary workers found themselves defending). Collectivization of industry had been checked by the government, and what collectivized workplaces there were deemed by the GCC to "run on a capital-wage relation basis."[68] The GCC concluded the article as pessimistically as they began it: "socialism is not as yet established in Spain, nor is it growing."[69]

The next article about Spain to appear in International Council Correspondence tacked the question of anarchism head on. This, however, was not the first time International Council Correspondence had taken up anarchism for discussion. In the July 1935 article "Anarchism and Marxism," attributed to W.R.B., the case was made that the anarchist conception of the future society is "purely utopian." Anarchists, it was argued, falsely oppose federalism and centralism, while accepting the former and attributing the later to authoritarian Marxists like Lenin (who, according to GCC, have nothing in common with Marxism other than the mutual use of the term). W.R.B. argued that from an economic standpoint, the anarchist belief in federalism, manifested in autonomous communes producing independently of each other and exchanging their goods (in a manner that allowed some communes to one-up others), is tantamount to "a revival of the historically outlived capitalist 'laissez faire' principle." From a political perspective, the anarchists were again found to be errant: "The Marxian slogan 'dictatorship of the proletariat' is attacked [by the anarchists]. They point to Russia where, it is charged, a party clique rules over the people and creates a new state, as an example of oppressive Marxian rule."[70] W.R.B. declares that, on the contrary, the situation in Russia has little do to with Marxism. What is called in Russia the dictatorship of the proletariat is in fact the "dictatorship of the party," predicated on Lenin's disdain for the working class as a whole, which he felt could never become revolutionary, and his consequent preference for an elite party that would act in the interests of the workers -- all of which culminated, after that party's success, in "a new state whose executive power and methods of oppression surpass at times even those of the outspoken fascist countries."[71] The council communist conception of the proletarian dictatorship, on the other hand, did not suppose the need for a long transitional period in which a party ruled over society and led it to socialism. On the contrary, As "H. Smith" wrote in a separate issue of ICC, the "proletarian dictatorship is not a substantial and finished product like a workers' club or the Place of the Soviets; it is a process which, like all social processes, assumes definite form only to the immediate and momentary onlooker."[72] Returning to "Marxism and Anarchism," W.R.B. concludes that

"the destruction of the capitalist class and its state through the revolution is immediately to be followed by the building up of the classless communist society. The state will be abolished, the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the armed workers in the factories--no special red army--will take charge to carry through production and distribution on the basis of communism."[73]

The aforementioned June 1937 article about Fascism was titled "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution." The article came from Räte-Korrespondenz, which in part discredits Bourrinet's claim that the Dutch and German communists held an appreciably different position on anarchism than the position of the Americans. The aim of the GIC in "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution" is to demonstrate that the successes of the Spanish workers were not attributable to their anarchist ideology (a point made in several articles written by the GCC), and that, on the contrary, "anarchism is incapable of solving the problems of revolutionary class struggle."[74] Their first criticism of the anarchists -- quite in line with W.R.B.'s critique of June 1935 -- was that the anarchists failed to take and utilize political power: "The anarchists never attempted to take away the power from the people's government. Neither did they work toward the organization of a political soviet [council] power. Instead of propagandizing the class struggle against the bourgeoisie, they preached class harmony to all groups belonging to the anti-fascist front."[75] Moreover, in participating with the government, "the anarchists helped to organize a bourgeois political power."[76] The failures of the anarchists in this respect were somewhat effetely blamed on their inability to "replace their unrealizable slogans" of no political power, etc., "with revolutionary proletarian ones," as if revolutionary practice amounts to sloganeering.[77] Later in the article, it was noted that "the question of political and economic organization of the revolution cannot be separated."[78] Criticism of Anarchist political methods turned to a criticism of anarchist economics, of the collectivization movement that had swept across much of Republican Spain. The success of collectivization (at least on its present basis) had already been critically dismissed by the GCC in the March 1937 article, but here collectivization was given an in-depth examination for the first time. According to this perspective, in taking over factories and workshops, the anarchists unions of the CNT had only replaced private property with collective property: "instead of personal property in the means of production, the unions take on in part the role played by the former owners in a slightly modified form. The form is changed, the system remains. Property, as such, is not abolished."[79] The GIC pointed to the continuing existence of money as evidence of the failure of collectivization. Blame for this failure, in turn, is placed on the very nature of anarcho-syndicalism, which, according to the GIC, is merely an updated version of the "petty-bourgeois" philosophy of Proudhon, the famed father of modern anarchism.[80]

However harsh the criticism, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution" displays the same degree of humanity and understanding we have seen in the above council communist articles. Ultimately the GIC does not fault the anarchists for choosing anti-fascism over anti-capitalism; realistically, "the revolution was doomed before it really started" by the lack of international aid. Without this aid, the Spanish workers had no choice but to defend themselves in the only way possible -- in alliance with the bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, the GIC does, "however, criticize the anarchists for considering the conditions in Catalonia as being socialistic."[81] By June, then, the major contours of the council communist analysis of the Spanish Civil War were already visible.

By August 1937, the situation in Spain had changed so much that Paul Mattick, in "'The Barricades Must be Torn Down': Moscow-Fascism in Spain," was able to declare that "the counter revolution extends all the way from Franco to [leading anarchist Diego Abad de] Santillan."[82] What precipitated this fierce outburst were the May Days, the first few days of May 1937 when the CNT and POUM (a relatively insignificant grouping usually regarded as Trotskyist) were forced into a miniature civil war with the government and the Communists, and the subsequent order from the CNT for its militants to "tear down the barricades" and stop fighting. What is remarkable in this article is not that the counter-revolution was extended to include the anarchists as well, but that Mattick resorted to talking about events in the past tense, in terms of what should have been done, rather than what yet must be done. Likewise, he seemed to realize the enormity of the anarchists' failures, as well as the difficulty of their situation. In this passage worth quoting at length, one can sense that council communists had finally given up their illusions about the prospects of a Spanish revolution:

It is not true, as the anarchist today try to make their followers believe that there was no other alternative, and hence that all criticism directed against the CNT is unjustified. The anarchists could have tried, after July 19, 1936, to establish worker's power in Catalonia, they could also have tried to crush the Government forces in Barcelona in May 1937. They could have marched against both the Franco-Fascists and the Moscow-Fascists. Most probably they would have been defeated; possibly Franco would have won and smashed the anarchists as well as his competitors of the "People's Front". Open capitalist intervention might have set in at once. But there was also another possibility, though much less likely. The French workers might have gone farther than to a mere stay-in strike; open intervention might have led to a war in which all the powers would have been involved. The struggle would have at once have turned on clear issues, between Capitalism and Communism. Whatever might have happened, one thing is sure: the chaotic condition of world capitalism would have been made still more chaotic. Without catastrophes no change of society is possible. Any real attack on the capitalist system might have hastened reaction, but reaction will set in anyhow, even if somewhat delayed. This delay will cost more workers' lives than would any premature attempt to crush the system of exploitation. But a real attack on capitalism might have created a condition more favorable to international action on the part of the working class, or it might have brought about a situation which would have sharpened all capitalist contradictions and so hastened historical development toward the breakdown of capitalism. In the beginning is the deed. But the CNT, we are told, felt so much responsibility for the lives of the workers. It wanted to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. What cynicism! More than a million people, have already died in the civil war. If one has to die anyway, he might as well die for a worthy cause.[83]

Mattick blames the failures on the CNT less on anarchist ideology than on its organizational structure: "The CNT never approached the question of revolution from the viewpoint of the working class, but has always been concerned first of all with the organization."[84] Instead of promoting the revolution, the CNT gave precedence to saving itself from the fascist reaction; instead of promoting the activity of the masses in creating the revolution, it preferred to "participate in governing the workers and bossing them around."[85] Indeed, "like the Bolsheviks, they identified their own organizational needs and with the needs and interests of the working class."[86] Mattick thus completed the council communist criticism of anarchism by contributing a critique of the movement's organizational forms to the already established critique of its ideology.

By August of 1937, then, the GCC had reached its final position on the Spanish Civil War. They realized that without an extraordinary, almost miraculous change of course, the Spanish revolution was defeated -- practically as soon as it began. The anarchists, as the only party capable of carrying out the revolution, had proved to be a tremendous disappointment. In grappling with their failures, the GCC identified one overarching lesson to be drawn from the civil war: "the vital connection between economic and political action in every phase, and most of all, in the immediately revolutionary phase of the proletarian class struggle."[87] At this point, we can directly address some of the reasons suggested above as to why studying the GCC's positions on the Spanish Civil War is important.

First, as was noted, there is the contention that the GCC was "easier" on the anarchists than the Dutch communists were. In light of the above analysis, this must be judged untrue. Not only was the GCC intensely critical (although rarely dogmatic), they even reprinted the opinions on anarchism of the Dutch council communists! The claim that Karl Korsch actively defended [sentence unfinished].

A second charge made against the council communists is that they eschew the necessity of organizing political power. Again, this must be deemed untrue. In fact, the very lesson of the Spanish Civil War, the GCC maintained, was that it demonstrated the necessity of combining the struggle for economic power with the struggle for political power. Furthermore, their conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat -- "armed workers in the factories" -- is in line with the famous description of the dictatorship of the proletariat provided by Lenin (whom surely none would charge with forsaking political power): "the proletariat armed and organized as the ruling class."

The claim is also made that anarchism and council communism are quite similar. Given both the charges the council communists made against the anarchists, as well as the gulf the council communists perceived to separate the two tendencies, as well as the very real differences in their understanding of the Spanish Civil War (anti-fascism and the Spanish Civil War have been risen to almost mythological heights among anarchists), it must be concluded, without judging either one, that there are significant differences between the two movements.

The Groups of Council Communists may have been little known in their time, and they remain probably even lesser known today, but they demonstrate that the United States has had indeed had a revolutionary working-class movement. It has been smaller in proportion than those in Europe and obviously less influential, but, as in the case of the Groups of Council Communists, it proved to be just as theoretically sophisticated. American working-class movements have unfortunately been overlooked, but if this changes, important light may be shed on the social history of the United States as well as on the topics to which these groups devoted their energy.


01. Richard Gombin, The Radical Tradition: A Study in Modern Revolutionary Thought (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), 93.

02. John Gerber, Anton Pannekoek and the Socialism of Workers' Self-Emancipation (Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History, 1989), 34.

03. Gerber, Anton Pannekoek, 38.

04. Gombin, The Radical Tradition, 84-85.

05. Gombin, The Radical Tradition, 104.

06. Otto Rühle, "Moscow and Us," (accessed May 1, 2007).

07. W. Jerome and Adam Buick, "Soviet State Capitalism? The History of an Idea," Survey: A Journal of Soviet and East European Studies 62 (January 1967): 58-59.

08. Mark Shipway, "Council Communism," in Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. Maximilien Rubel and John Crump (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), 110.

09. Marcel van der Linden, "On Council Communism," Historical Materialism 12, no. 4 (2004): 30-31.

10. Van der Linden, "On Council Communism," 43.

11. Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: The Viking Press, 1957), 65.

13. Draper, Roots, 66.

14. Draper, Roots, 69-71.

15. Michael Buckmiller, "Paul Mattick: 1904-81," Root & Branch no. 10: 3.

16. Justin Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 117.

17. Buckmiller, "Paul Mattick," 3.

18. Gerber, Anton Pannekoek, 165.

19. Buckmiller, "Paul Mattick," 4.

20. Buckmiller, "Paul Mattick," 4.

21. Gerber, Anton Pannekoek, 168.

22. International Council Correspondence, October 1934.

23. Spring, Fairfield Porter, 116-117.

24. Fairfield Porter, Material Witness: The Selected Letters of Fairfield Porter, ed. Ted Leigh (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), 67.

25. William Isaacs, "Contemporary Marxian Political Movements in the United States," vol. 2 (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1939), 706.

26. Gerber, Anton Pannekoek, 229.

27. Paul Mattick, "Groups of Council Communists," The Social Frontier: A Journal of Educational Criticism and Reconstruction 5, no. 45 (1939): 253.

28. Paul Mattick, "Introduction," in New Essays, vol. 1, by Groups of Council Communists (Westport: Greenwood Reprint Corporation, 1970), 4.

29. Gerber, Anton Pannekoek, 168.

30. Paul Mattick, "Introduction," 4.

31. Paul Mattick, "Introduction," 4.

32. Gerber, Anton Pannekoek, 173.

33. Even Fairfield Porter, usually deferring to Mattick's lead in political matters, was unable assume the indifferent attitude Mattick and the GCC displayed toward World War II. See Spring, 142.

34. Groups of Council Communists, "The Concentration Camp Grows," Living Marxism 4, no. 6 (April 1939): 175.

35. International Communist Current, The Dutch and German Communist Left: A Contribution to the History of the Revolutionary Movement (London: Porcupine Press, 2001), 290. This book was prepared as a doctoral dissertation by Phillipe Bourrinet with the help of the International Communist Current, of which he was a member; Bourrinet has since left the group and released revised editions. The version referenced here is the original, which was written with and reflects the views of the International Communist Current.

36. International Communist Current, The Dutch and German Communist Left, 290.

37. Groups of Council Communists, "The Concentration Camp Grows," 171.

38. International Communist Current, The Dutch and German Left, 236.

39. Groups of Council Communists, "The Concentration Camp Grows," 171.

40. J.H., "The Role of Fascism," International Council Correspondence 2, no. 8 (July 1936): 10.

41. J.H., "The Role of Fascism," 10.

42. J.H., "The Role of Fascism," 14-15.

43. J.H., "The Role of Fascism," 15.

44. J.H., "The Role of Fascism," 13.

45. J.H., "The Role of Fascism," 12.

46. "Class Struggle in War," International Council Correspondence 2, no. 5 (May 1936): 24.

47. "Class Struggle in War," 25.

48. "Class Struggle in War," 25.

49. "Class Struggle in War," 25.

50. United Workers Party, "The Spanish Class Struggle," International Council Correspondence 1, no. 2 (November 1934): 24-25.

51. Groups of Council Communists, "The 'Victory' in Spain," International Council Correspondence 2, no. 5 (April 1936): 19.

52. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," International Council Correspondence 2, no. 11 (October 1936): 1-40.

53. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 2.

54. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 9.

55. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 11.

56. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 20.

57. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 6.

58. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 14.

59. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 21.

60. Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 21.

61. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 32.

62. Groups of Council Communists, "The Non-Intervention Comedy Comes to an End in Spain," International Council Correspondence 3, no. 9&10 (October 1937): 24.

63. Groups of Council Communists, "The Civil War in SPAIN!," 40.

64. Groups of Council Communists, "What Next in Spain?," International Council Correspondence 3, no. 3 (March 1937): 12.

65. Groups of Council Communists, "What Next in Spain?," 15-16.

66. Groups of Council Communists, "What Next in Spain?," 18.

67. Groups of Council Communists, "What Next in Spain?," 18.

68. Groups of Council Communists, "What Next in Spain?," 19.

69. Groups of Council Communists, "What Next in Spain?," 19.

70. W.R.B., "Marxism and Anarchism," International Council Correspondence 1, no. 9 (July 1935): 10.

71. W.R.B., "Marxism and Anarchism," 11.

72. H. Smith, "Trotsky and Proletarian Dictatorship," International Council Correspondence 3, no. 4 (April 1937): 31.

73. W.R.B., "Marxism and Anarchism," 11-12.

74. Group of International Communists, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution," International Council Correspondence 3, no. 5&6 (June 1937): 2.

75. Group of International Communists, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution," International Council Correspondence 3, no. 5&6 (June 1937): 2.

76. Group of International Communists, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution," 3.

77. Group of International Communists, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution," 3.

78. Group of International Communists, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution," 11.

79. Group of International Communists, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution," 13.

80. Group of International Communists, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution," 18.

81. Group of International Communists, "Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution," 7.

82. Paul Mattick, "'The Barricades Must be Torn Down': Moscow-Fascism in Spain," International Council Correspondence 3, no. 7&8 (August 1937): 26.

83. Paul Mattick, "'The Barricades Must Be Torn Down,'" 27.

84. Paul Mattick, "'The Barricades Must Be Torn Down,'" 28.

85. Paul Mattick, "'The Barricades Must Be Torn Down,'" 28.

86. Paul Mattick, "'The Barricades Must Be Torn Down,'" 28.

87. Karl Korsch, "Economics and Politics in Revolutionary Spain," Living Marxism 4, no. 3 (May 1938): 79.

Works Cited

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