History of Workers’ Councils


Throughout the last 150 years, there have erupted a series of attempts to take over social life without capitalists, without the state or vanguard party leadership. These “workers’ councils” arose out of irreversibly critical situations in the existing order. In some situations they emerged alongside the state, creating a “dual government”. When the state fell during the Spanish Revolution, some workers’ councils spread over a wider terrain, reaching as much as one third of the country. In some cases they not only governed without the state but in places they abolished the local currency and began their own system of exchange. These experiments took place during revolutionary processes when the official authorities lost power but before state power was regained. The reorganization of this world and the experiences that participants had must have been beyond their wildest dreams. These movements lasted as short a time as 3 days (the Seattle General Strike) or as long as 3 years (the Spanish revolution).

Like most social movements, these councils began by simply reacting to the abuses of the existing order. Workers wanted higher wages, better working conditions and more justice. But once the authorities lost power, the workers found themselves doing far more than they bargained for. Though these workers’ councils were inventive and festive, like all creative activity they were productive and contained their own collective discipline. In Spain, after the failure of Franco’s coup in 1936, over the following three years at least one third of the country was self-managed, resulting in better productive records than the overthrown government. This was done in the middle of a civil war!

The internal organization of the councils expressed the collective creativity they were demonstrating in the world. They were organized in an anti-hierarchical, anti-bureaucratic manner. The workshop of the councils, the foundation from which all decisions were arrived at, was the general assembly. Whatever resolutions resulted were carried out by mandated delegates who had no independent power of their own (unlike government representatives who, once elected, have power to make their own decisions). The delegates merely carried out decisions already made in the assembly. Secondly, these delegates were often rotated so that no one got too comfortable being a permanent authority. Lastly, the delegates were immediately revocable. This means that any abuses of power were grounds for immediate termination. There were few bureaucratic procedures or the need for the population to wait until the next election to make change.

In both the amazing coherence of their social management capacities as well as the profound change in the quality of their interactions, these experiments were truly “out of this world”. In fact, the depiction of what happened to the participants runs into the same problems that any mystic or artist or person who has had a peak experience when they try to describe their experience. How do you describe an experience which seems almost as if it’s on another plane of reality using the language of the existing order? The presence of worker self-management flies in the face of capitalists’ claims that workers are lazy and unproductive. Time and again we have seen that when workers control what is produced, as well as how it is planned and executed, they produce more in less time than any workers under capitalism.


Workers’ councils have dotted the globe in at least the following countries:

• The Paris Commune of 1871
• The St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905
• The Russian Revolution of 1917
• Short-lived experiments in Poland, Italy, Germany and Bulgaria between 1917-1920
• The Seattle General Strike of 1919
• The Spanish Revolution of 1936 (for most of the first years and then on and off until 1939)
• The Hungarian Revolution of 1956
• The French General Strike of 1968
• The Chilean Revolution 1970-1973

The viability of the councils as experimental forms is indicated by the fact that they have occurred over most parts of the world, they have 150 years of history behind them and the overwhelming majority of participants had no knowledge of their occurrence in other places.

About Barbara MacLean

Barbara MacLean has worked as an academic and career counselor at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB), Merritt and West Valley Colleges and as a career counselor and manager of the Oakland One Stop Career Center, a public career and jobs center in partnership with EDD. She is a co-founder and editor of Planning Beyond Capitalism.

View all posts by Barbara MacLean →

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