by Bruno Leipold
Bruno Leipold: This book is the culmination of a long engagement of yours with the German council movement that emerged during the Revolution of 1918-19. You wrote your PhD on Hannah Arendt’s account of council democracy and have also edited two volumes on the subject: Council Democracy: Towards a Democratic Socialist Politics (2018) and, with Gaard Kets, The German Revolution and Political Theory (2019). What is it about the councils that keeps drawing you back to them?
James Muldoon: The councils offer an alternative vision of democracy that expands our political imagination and questions the compatibility of democracy with capitalism. This perspective helps us to see our political inheritance of liberal democratic capitalism from a new perspective. The council movements believed it was necessary to extend a program of democratisation into a range of social and economic institutions such as schools, universities, workplaces, industry bodies, economic regulatory institutions and the civil service.
Many political theorists and actors come back to some form of council model when they are searching for alternative forms of political organisation outside of the state. The classic image of a council democracy is of a federal structure of councils with local and regional councils electing delegates leading to a national council that would exercise political and economic powers.
For those interested in examining more democratic ways to organise the economy, the experience of the council movements still provides a guiding light for what could be possible. There are specific institutional features such as recallable delegates, imperative mandate and average wages for political representatives that I think should get more of a hearing in contemporary debates, but which aren’t necessary for some form of council system.
Studying these bottom-up democratic institutions might seem anachronistic today, but what I find most interesting isn’t necessarily the precise institutional features, but the unfulfilled aspirations for political transformation which remain alive in the present. They show that a participatory society with more institutions organised along democratic lines is not only desirable but could be within reach.
BL: The title of your book seems to be a sceptical nod towards John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, a book that encapsulated the anti-hierarchical ideology of the Occupy movements. Do you see your book as challenging that model of political organisation and strategy?
JM: The title of my book, Building Power to Change the World implies a different strategy and approach to the ‘horizontalist’ tendency that was prominent in social movements in the 2010s. When I started this project on the workers’ councils of the 1917-1923 era, there had been a return to public assemblies and anarchist-inspired direct democratic methods as part of the global “squares movements”. Movements such as the Spanish 15M movement, Occupy Wall Street and other square and assembly-based protests sought to negate principles of hierarchy and representation and advocated for strategies of withdrawal and autonomous self-activity.
I participated in these movements as part of Occupy Melbourne and what many of us started to see was the limitations of such an ephemeral form of organisation. There was a sense in the neo-anarchist currents of these square movements that we could just re-create the world anew without having to engage with what was perceived to be an outdated and archaic form of democratic government. By refusing to engage with the domain of the state and parliamentary struggle these movements did not build up long-term organisational power or challenge the power of neoliberal capitalism head on.
In contrast to this strategy of refusal, the central point that most participants in the council movements of the inter-war period agreed upon was that in order to secure lasting social change the movement should develop the independent power of the working class. There were many disagreements over methods, but there was a shared horizon of acknowledging the importance of strategising ways in which workers’ power could be enhanced while diminishing the organisational and ideological power of the capitalist class.
BL: That would seem to involve a quite distinct understanding of organisation and power than we find in the horizontalism of Occupy and Holloway?
JM: There are many similarities between the approach of the Councils and that adopted by Holloway so the differences should not be overstated. However, his idea of “not taking power” relies on an ontological distinction between a “power to” (potentia) and a “power over” (potestas) and the presumption that there is some qualitative difference between the organisational form of parliaments versus other more grassroots forms of organisation. We can supposedly build our capacity for collective action (potentia) without creating new structures for controlling others (potestas).
I have always found this distinction dubious to hold in practice. It ends up valorising forms of political activity seen as “from below” or “of the people” while demonising strategies that involve forms of parliamentary struggle or action in and against the state.
Any movement seeking to form a more emancipatory society will eventually have to confront the question of which institutions will manage political conflict and enforce collective decisions in a post-capitalist polity. When you start to ask the question of how these institutions would be structured, what participatory rights and legal protections citizens would have, and how law would be created, the distinction between two separate kinds of power seems less helpful.
BL: One of my favourite lines that you quote in the book is by the Revolutionary Shop Steward Ernst Däumig who said he wanted ‘a Germany whose affairs are really determined by active people doing more than running to the ballot box every two or three years’, which sounds like the model of a good Rousseaian republican citizen! What role do you think republicanism plays in the ideology of the Council movement?
JM: The tradition of republicanism has some deeply conservative and even anti-democratic tendencies, but there are also prominent forms of radical republicanism. We are beginning to understand in more detail how the socialist tradition emerged from radical strands of republicanism in the 19th century.
Theorists of the council movements inherited a democratic republican legacy through the writings of Marx and Engels. Rosa Luxemburg is somebody who at different points has been seen as exemplary of a radical republicanism due to her calls for greater participation in public life and her defence of democratic freedoms. The council movements represent some of the more radical elements of the German socialist movement who favoured “bottom up” forms of socialist organising in comparison to the more statist versions of socialism in the German Social Democratic Party.
The real gambit of theorists like Anton Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemburg is on the question of citizen participation. Their entire political theory relies on a conception of democratic citizenship which demands a lot of citizens in terms of their commitment to public life. There is a kind of Rousseauian idea here of active citizens tending to public institutions, but it’s a form of republicanism beyond the state - a republic of councils perhaps.
BL: An important contribution of your book is that it reconstructs some of the core concepts of the ideology of the Council movements, including Rosa Luxemburg’s account of ‘socialist civic virtues’. How do these socialist civic virtues differ from what we traditionally understand by civic virtue?
JM: When I first read Luxemburg’s account of socialist civic virtues I was surprised by the use of such republican language. But the more closely I followed her thought in the 1917-1919 period, I began to see how much she had turned her attention to the cultural transformations that would be needed for a democratic socialist revolution to be successful. She thought that worker-controlled institutions such as workers’ councils would need to be accompanied by new social norms and widespread modes of relating to others that would protect and maintain these new institutions.
The content of these socialist civic virtues mirrors certain aspects of republicanism: the need for an orientation towards the common good, the negation of egoism, the development of political judgement and the importance of self-discipline and personal sacrifice. But the way these virtues figure in Luxemburg’s thought is very different to traditional republican theory. It’s not the state that cultivates these virtues in citizens through education, but the workers themselves that develop them in political struggle. They are also not oriented towards preserving the state as in republican theory, but towards an emancipatory political movement of overcoming relations of domination.
It’s for these reasons that I wouldn’t go as far as interpreters such as Hannah Arendt who sees Luxemburg as some kind of ‘republican’, however broadly understood. Although there are interesting elements of republican language and themes in her writings, they are thoroughly transformed and reconfigured within a revolutionary socialist outlook.
BL: Another important conceptual innovation of the councils that you highlight is idea of ‘freedom as collective self-determination’, which you particularly associate with Anton Pannekoek. Where does this conception of freedom lie in relation to some of the classic debates, including the distinction between positive and negative liberty?
JM: The council movements envisioned a new participatory society of democratic collectives involved in public life and democratically managing all of societies major institutions. Their ideal of political freedom involved democratic collective participating in their community and helping to shape its underlying character, laws and future direction.
The revival of republican accounts of freedom as non-domination have all been tied to negative ideals of liberty. Even radical republicans such as Alex Gourevitch – who has reconstructed the political thought of the Knights of Labour – situate their own interpretations primarily within the negative liberty tradition. For many of the radical council theorists, freedom was best understood as an activity – and indeed a movement – rather than a status or condition of non-domination. Democratic participation was seen as a necessary aspect of freedom rather than something auxiliary that was need to secure its conditions.
This view of freedom goes back to an older Athenian tradition (“the liberty of the ancients”) of active participation in exercising collective power. But this wasn’t just a nostalgic view of direct democracy. It was also attentive to how the state and modern labour market were two of the principal sources of domination in modern life.
It is a demanding view of freedom, but one that is too often discounted in debates between liberals and republicans as either conceptually incoherent or not worth considering. I think such a dismissal is too hasty. The ideal of freedom as collective self-determination has important resonances with a range of emancipatory social movements who see freedom as a collective practice and a constant struggle. It captures something attractive about our intuitive ideas of freedom that are left out of a purely negative lens.
BL: One subsidiary aim of the book is to rehabilitate the reputation of Karl Kautsky. You argue that during the German Revolution he advocated for a kind ‘socialist republicanism’ that combined elements of both parliamentary and council democracy. How does that position differ to some of the other positions taken by socialists and social democrats at the time?
JM: Karl Kautsky is little read today, even by Marxists. Mostly he is associated with the rigid orthodoxy of the Second International. He is said to have vulgarised Marxism into a crude economic determinism in which revolution was seen as a historical inevitability and all the party needed to do was passively wait for capitalism’s downfall. The book attempts to show that Kautsky was a far more sensitive and dynamic thinker than this characterisation implies.
I focus on his writings leading up to and during the German Revolution. During this period, Kautsky found himself occupying a middle position between two different groups. The moderate social democrats wanted the workers’ councils demobilised and for a speedy transition to a parliamentary republic. The radicals in the party called for a council republic with the workers’ councils forming the basis of the new structures of political authority.
In many ways, Karl Kautsky was the goldilocks of the German Revolution. He supported the workers’ councils and thought they played a valuable role in the initial phases of the revolution. But he didn’t see the councils as sufficiently universal or indeed that well suited to administering a future socialist society. In practice, rule by the councils had excluded many groups of people from any form of political suffrage: from many women, to the unemployed, peasants and even some male workers outside densely populated industrial areas.
But he didn’t think the councils should disappear after the revolution. He advocated for retaining the workers’ councils alongside parliamentary institutions to maintain an institutionalised power base for safeguarding workers’ interests and for the organisation of the economy.
BL: What did this ‘goldilocks’ position on the councils mean for Kautsky’s relations to those political factions, such as the leaders of the SPD, that rejected this hybrid approach?
JM: The leadership of the SPD at the time represented a social democratic compromise with capital and the state. They wanted to take over the reins of power but for private property to remain largely unchanged and for German industry to continue on as before. Kautsky is widely seen as going along with this basic idea and as having effectively sold out his radical roots by the time of the Revolution. His writings during this period show this not to be the case. Kautsky still advocated for a thoroughgoing socialisation of the economy and a transformation of the state.
One of the more innovative aspects of his program was his call for the radical decentralisation of the administrative apparatus and for power to be devolved to municipal apparatuses including the power of taxation, policing and the delivery of basic services. The radical housing projects and cultural life of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s stands as a living experiment of the kinds of policies Kautsky was advocating at the time.
Kautsky could be criticised for his naivety in relation to the true intentions of the SPD leadership, but he was pushing for far more radical policies than what he is usually given credit for.
BL: And what about Kautsky’s positioning beyond Germany? How did his socialist republicanism influence his view of the concurrent revolutionary events in Russia?
JM: What makes Kautsky’s position a socialist republican one is its starting point of political democracy, universal suffrage, parliamentary elections, a multi-party electoral system, and its insistence on maintaining civil and political rights. Kautsky was therefore critical of the Bolsheviks for what he argued were the use of ‘methods of violence’ which he contrasted with the ‘methods of democracy’.
One of the key points of difference between Lenin and Kautsky is on the role of the state. Lenin models the Russian soviet system on the Paris Commune with workers’ councils as the main institutions of political power. Kautsky doesn’t think the state should be abolished, but rather transformed into a democratic and then socialist republic. Kautsky finds in Marx a distinction between a “military autocratic” aspect of the state which should be abolished, and the democratic republican institutions which would need to be transformed for a future socialist society.
He argues that institutions such as a parliament with free elections, a multi-party system, a civil service and some kind of basic administrative apparatus would be necessary in a future socialist society. The purportedly “anti-bureaucratic” institutions of the Commune were simply no longer suitable for a large, complex and industrialised nation state. The socialist party needed to take what was best from the tradition of democratic republicanism and push it to its radical edges.
I think the identification of socialist republicanism as an ideology is a useful way of revealing significant differences within socialist ideology and an under-examined strand of democratic socialism in contrast to the more insurrectionary communism of the Bolsheviks.
BL: The Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution have, of course, played a much greater role in the political imagination of the Left. What do you think explains the relative neglect of the Councils of the German Revolution?
JM: The various strands of socialist democracy that existed within pre-revolutionary Germany were eventually overtaken by the communism of the Bolshevik Party.
The experience of the councils was also not well incorporated into the history of political thought. Every historical event will be subject to partisan interpretations, but as John Medearis has shown, three of the most well-known interpreters of the councils, V. I. Lenin, Hannah Arendt and Joseph Schumpeter, each offer distorted readings of the councils that have led to confusions over their reception.
Lenin’s admonishing of the ‘infantile leftism’ of council theorists such as Anton Pannekoek had perhaps done the most to sink the reputation of theorists associated with this strand of socialism. Contrary to Lenin’s interpretation, many of the council theorists made significant theoretical innovations within Marxism, particularly by advancing democratic republican aspects of Marx’s political thought.
BL: Do you think that anything has been lost in our political vocabulary as a result of that neglect?
JM: I think the biggest neglect has been of these more ‘bottom up’ and democratic approaches to socialist organising which have been marginalised both with social democratic and communist discourse.
This relates to both strategy and institutions. On the strategic front, we have seen insurrectionary forms of socialism and vanguardist theories of political parties dominate for most of the twentieth century. For the most part, parliamentary politics has been seen as corrupted and not worth pursuing leading to a marginalisation of small socialist groups.
In terms of institutions, there has been very little theorising about what these would look like in a future socialist society or how you would practically organise the economy and manage political conflict. The idea that with the end of capitalism the majority of conflict would disappear has never really been plausible. In this respect, socialist republicanism adds an important political and institutional dimension to the socialist tradition.
BL: Finally, if you could pick out one text from the German council movement for people to read today, what would it be?
JM: I’ll cheat slightly and recommend one in German and one in English. For those who read German, I would get a copy of the stenographic report of the National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers Councils which met from 16-20 December 1918. This was dubbed the “Parliament of the Revolution” and was the meeting at which the councils decided on a number of important questions such as whether Germany would be a council republic or a liberal democracy and how far it would go in socialising the economy. The debates at the Congress are insightful for how the workers and soldiers understood their choices.
It was republished on the centenary of the revolution in 2018 by Dieter Braeg and Ralf Hoffrogge as Allgemeiner Kongress der Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte Deutschlands. Unfortunately, it’s yet to be published in English, although certain speeches have been translated in Gabriel Kuhn’s All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919.
My personal favourite from this period that has been translated in English is a short pamphlet by Karl Kautsky written in January 1919 entitled “Guidelines for a Socialist Action Programme”. It provides an overview of how a democratic republic could be expanded into a socialist republic through a dual strategy of democratisation and socialisation and offers a different perspective on Kautsky’s political views during this period.