An overlooked figure in the council communist movement

In the wake of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary movements it inspired, there emerged various critical schools of Marxism—critical in the sense that they challenged not only capitalism but also the doctrinaire approaches of “official” Marxism, embodied by the social democratic and Communist parties, and the social forms they represented (welfare capitalism and Stalinism, respectively). One school was “council communism,” a dissident Marxist politics that emerged out of the ultraleft of the revolutionary movements in Germany and the Netherlands in the early 1920s.

Councilists believed that self-organized workers’ councils, and not parties or unions, were the key to a successful revolution. One important, if overlooked figure to emerge out of the councilist movement was the German-American Paul Mattick, whose pathbreaking ideas on revolutionary struggle and capitalist crisis are still relevant. Gary Roth’s Marxism in a Lost Century provides a vivid and fascinating account of the life of Paul Mattick, and in so doing presents a history of the

twentieth-century left from the perspective of one of its underappreciated protagonists.

Paul Mattick was born into a Prussian working-class family in 1904 and moved to Berlin at a young age. Mattick’s parents were radicalized during the political polarization of World War I. His father was a supporter of the Spartacus League (a revolutionary split from the German Social Democratic Party), while his mother took him to an antiwar speech in 1916 given by one of its future leaders, Karl Liebknecht. When Mattick left school he took a blue-collar apprenticeship. Roth describes how as the revolutionary period of 1918–1923 began, Mattick oriented to the most radical sections of the labor movement—first the Spartacus League’s successor, the Communist Party of Germany (the KPD), and then a councilist splinter group, the Communist Workers Party of Germany (the KAPD). Mattick was a rank-and-file revolutionary, taking part in street battles, strikes, and expropriations (including participating in robbing a Social Democratic Party functionary of the party’s dues money). Roth’s book is at its most compelling and exciting in covering this period. He gives a lucid account of what the German revolution was like on the ground through the eyes of Mattick and his comrades.

The bulk of Marxism in a Lost Century focuses on the decades following the revolutionary tumult of the 1920s. Particular attention is given to Mattick’s immigration to Chicago in 1926. Roth details how Mattick found his way into radical left milieus in the United States—first in the German immigrant community and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and later in the unemployed movement during the Depression and various “antiparliamentary” (and anti-Leninist) Marxist groups, such as the United Workers Party. In terms of organizing, the unemployed movement was a priority for Mattick, breaking with the IWW’s focus on the still-employed working class.

By the end of the 1930s, Mattick attempted to break out of the German-speaking immigrant left and began to write in English. In discussing this period, Roth introduces one of the book’s biographical themes: Mattick’s lifelong struggle to find publishing outlets for his work. Mattick’s difficulties were initially due to his weak grasp of the English language, but were later due to indifference from publishers and the wider left. This indifference included a false promise from Mattick’s friend and self-appointed mentor Sidney Hook to review Mattick’s pamphlet “The Inevitability of Communism.” Had Hook followed through, Mattick’s ideas would have gotten a hearing much earlier on. Furthermore, Mattick’s uncompromising opposition to Leninism and Stalinism —Mattick wrote that he did not criticize Bolshevism, but rather struggled against it— alienated him from a large section of the left, including (in the 1960s) Perry Anderson of New Left Review and Eugene Genovese of Science & Society.

Another theme presented in Roth’s book is that of the friendships with other, often much better known, Marxists. In addition to fellow councilists Anton Pannekoek and Karl Korsch, Mattick collaborated with Henryk Grossman, Roman Rosdolsky, Paul Buhle, and others.

Mattick began to break out of his isolation during the period of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s. His ideas became influential in the radical student movement in West Germany. In addition, he influenced small circles of radicals in the United States, particularly the journal Root and Branch, which included many now well-known Marxist intellectuals such as Jeremy Brecher and Stanley Aronowitz.

Unfortunately, Marxism in a Lost Century deliberately avoids focusing on Mattick’s ideas. Roth explains that there is no need to summarize Mattick’s ideas, as his essays are widely available in print and on the Internet. Given Mattick’s influential views on crisis theory, it is disappointing that Roth does not deal systematically with his theoretical contributions. Mattick’s views continue to be relevant in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. Along with Grossman, Paul Mattick was a key figure in renewing interest in the controversial “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall,” which Marx outlined in his 1865 notebooks (later edited into the third volume of Capital), in opposition to underconsumptionist and disproportionality theories of crisis (long hegemonic on the Marxist left). Furthermore, while Mattick’s antiparty views would not appeal to many readers of this journal, his fierce opposition to Stalinism and bureaucracies of any kind within the workers’ movement will find wide resonance. By shining light on an extraordinary and neglected Marxist, Roth’s book is an important contribution to Marxist scholarship and deserves to be widely read.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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