The Timeliness of the Young Mattick

by A New Institute for Social Research


“Old formulae and old ideas are in the process of dying…The world counts on new forces, which are the heads and the hearts of the workers themselves.”1



It’s an historical fact that proletarians invented the workers’ council, at once our means of revolutionary combat and the germ of communist societal reconstruction, in the course of the early 20th century’s waves of major class contestation—appearing first in Russia, then in Germany, then in workplaces and neighbourhoods across the world, from Hungary to Iran to recent echoes in Chile. It’s less well-remembered but important that ‘council communism’ as a theoretical current was also an invention of proletarians, “trying to understand their own failures and that of the German revolution.”2 The distinctive council communist ideas were: 1) that the 1917 bolshevik revolution’s ultimate historical role was that of a “bourgeois revolution against the bourgeoisie”3 overseeing rapid industrialisation and capitalisation of agriculture in a backward semi-feudal nation via jacobinical, state-capitalist4 political-economic forms; 2) that the revolutionary subject5 exercising the proletarian dictatorship would not be “an organisation formed previously to the struggle”,6 neither a party, nor ‘one big union’ which enlisted workers in advance, but rather the entire class, which would be driven by the necessities of crisis and combat to develop in and through the revolutionary process its own organs—councils—adequate to the task;7 and 3) it was pointless to try to organise or lead anyone—communist groups came together only for self-clarification in miserable times, and would dissolve into the surge of social revolution.8 This perspective was influenced by, and grew out of, the German and Dutch communist left: the staunchly internationalist radical fringe of the prewar social democracy that opposed socialist politicians’ widespread support of their national bourgeoisies in the first inter-imperialist war, rallied to the bolsheviks in the 1917 revolution, before criticising the Comintern and breaking to its left in 1921. The left-communists considered Moscow’s decree that all affiliated parties pursue trade-union and parliamentary activity a misinformed misapplication of practices that had become a reactionary anachronism in the capitalistically-developed west. But the council communists’ opposition to bolshevism went far beyond the communist left’s basically tactical disagreement, and was supported by a more profound and extensive historical and theoretical armature, which cohered gradually in the period from 1926-1936, when the world-revolutionary wave of 1917-1923 had already receded.9 Their theories were worked out by members of the Groups of International Communists (GIC) in Holland, the Communist Workers’ Union (KAU) in Germany, and the Groups of Council Communists (GCC) in the US,10 which bore more resemblance to small workers’ discussion circles than to the earlier left-communist parties like the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD),11 which had split from the Communist Party (KPD) faithful to the Moscow line.12 These innovative thinkers were young proletarians, whose schools had been the self-sabotage13 and long, painful disintegration of the revolution in Germany,14 protracted capitalist crisis, and the rise of fascism. That harshest of teachers, history, drilled into them lesson after lesson concerning the utter impotence and insignificance of all ‘revolutionary groups’ purporting to represent, catalyse, organise, teach, or lead the proletarians. The council communists were the first to articulate the hard truth that the workers’ movement in all its phases and forms, even the most avowedly radical, had been bound to the ascendant era of capitalist development, and that any future revolutionary prospects rested on the insolubility of the contradictions and secular crisis-tendencies built into the capital accumulation process, not the goodwill or persuasiveness of pro-revolutionary ideologists. According to them, that era had ended with the advent of a global, fundamental crisis of accumulation which, while sometimes latent and sometimes catastrophically manifest, was now permanent, its face flickering through in all manner of social retrogression and barbarism15—so long, at least, as all life is held hostage to capital. Council communism is the theoretical expression of an historical break with all the baggage of the moribund old workers’ movement,16 the one that haggled over the place and price of the labour-power commodity within capitalist society, championed as virtuous the drudgery of those forced to sell it, served as tribunus plebis in parliament,17 and at its most militant, even tried to recruit workers into industrial unions hoping to ‘collectivise’ commodity-production,18 or establish a party-regime that saw socialism as equivalent to a state plan ‘fairly’ distributing the value pumped out of still-powerless, still-dispossessed wage-slaves.19 But when minorities of revolutionary proletarians began to grope toward communism,20 the old workers’ movement, in spite of all its fine words, viewed their self-activity as an existential threat—since all power to the workers’ councils would put its political specialists out of a job—and ultimately showed itself their enemy in the 1917-1923 sequence. Bearing names like Paul Mattick, Henk Canne-Meijer, Jan Appel, Helmut Wagner, Ben Sijes, Alfred Weiland, Walter Boelke, and Sam Moss,21 the council communist thinkers were veterans of that sequence, working-class autodidacts who squeezed their theoretical pursuits in around their day jobs, when they weren’t driven into the army of the unemployed.22 In an effort to understand their own calamitous times, they studied the fine grains of Marx’s critique of political economy in prisons and in groups of jobless proles, meeting in squats and sometimes-illegal study-circles, hiding from the nazis, struggling through the Great Depression, rediscovering Capital’s contemporary relevance in a way no properly-trained marxist had for decades. For them, it was not doctrine to be learned and left to the side when it was time for action—it really was living social critique, with urgent explanatory power, shedding light on the crisis-ridden historical tendencies of capitalism buffeting their own lives.


It may surprise readers already familiar with Paul Mattick that he made his first attempts as a writer and thinker composing short stories drawn from his own life, since he's now known for the recovery of Marx’s critique of political economy as a critical theory of capitalist crisis. But these stories stand as one moment of a theoretical unity, interrelated with his critiques of economics and politics: they are essential to understanding Mattick’s thought as a whole. Proletarian experience furnishes the content of council communist critique, even when highly theoretically mediated.23 The virtue of Mattick’s crisis theory is that it cuts through the mystifying talk of externalities and contingencies, never losing sight of the system’s essential immanent contradictions. He always maintains a view from the conceptual standpoint of the total capital, never treats ‘labour’ and ‘capital,’ ‘production’ and ‘circulation,’ class struggle and self-valorising value, different nations and imperialist blocs and moments of social life as independent spheres or ‘levels’ or extrinsic forces—thus he can critically disclose why they fetishistically appear that way. Proletarian experience is itself immanent to capital, the first truly totalising social form in history. The turbulent phenomena of working-class existence and struggle attain concretion by tracing them back to the underlying categories of the capital-process. These husks and their algebraic exigencies at once constrain and compel us, yet their apparently autonomised trajectory can only move along its grooves by vampirising our real movement, our trimmed-down, separated, sold-off life-activity.


In the late 19th through early 20th century, the short story form, and its cousin the sketch, lived at an interesting, characteristically modern juncture of the popular-journalistic and the avant-garde. Largely churned out for magazines and newspapers by semi-proletarianised writers-by-trade, these pieces were often sentimental, but just as often some combination of cynical, city-set, slightly risqué, or concerned with the lower classes. They could be formulaic, made to measure with morals or punchlines. But in their brevity, their very form tended toward the fragmentary shard,24 in which flashed all the shocks of the harried urban working person’s experiential reality25—a subtly subversive slice through neat narrative conventions26 conforming to a bourgeois ideology that told itself its reason was rational. This made the short story and the sketch attractive to precursors and pioneers of literary modernism—Charles Baudelaire, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the Joris-Karl Huysmans of the Parisian Sketches, Remy de Gourmont, Marcel Schwob, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, the Jean Rhys of The Left Bank, Peter Altenberg, even Karl Kraus, Siegfried Kracauer, and Walter Benjamin, who blurred the lines between the short story and that other very modern form, the essay. These are fairly rarefied examples, but this nexus of low and high, accessible and experimental—in addition to a time-commitment small enough to be semi-manageable after one clocks out—made the form ripe for deployment by proletarian writers,27 especially those of Paul Mattick’s stripe. Indeed the likes of Marx, Engels, and Hess took interest in, and saw power in, proletarian literature28—the young Marx greatly admired the “vehement and brilliant literary debut” of tailor-writer Wilhelm Weitling, and he and Engels admonished the Bauer brothers that “modern prose and poetry emanating…from the lower classes of the people [shows that they] know how to raise themselves spiritually even without” the tutelage of critical critics.29 Yet the (post-)social-democratic line, followed by Rosa Luxemburg as well as Lenin, was that in capitalist society, working-class aesthetic production was inevitably rubbish, if not impossible.30 It’s true that there are plenty of examples of clumsy, maudlin, hamfisted art made by proles, both the hailing-our-culture and the bewailing-our-lot kind, though there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s prominent because it’s what liberal bourgeois favour and patronise, either out of voyeuristic titillation, or a guilty urge to do cultural charity-work.31 But Mattick’s experience of proletarianisation frustrating his aesthetic and intellectual passions, and his frequent crisis-born ejection from regular value-productive labour, prevented him from developing a sanguine, conformist, affirmative conception of working-class life. Rather, he had been drawn to and thrived amongst the working artists and writers of 1920s Cologne, steeped in avant-garde aesthetics and bohemian lifestyles,32 and his short stories largely avoid the aforementioned sentimentality. They don’t lionise the health and virtue of the class transfigured into a kind of culturally-defined estate within capitalist society which merely deserves a fairer deal, but rather point beyond its very existence—indeed, the pieces have a ruthlessness that makes them almost communist contes cruels. And while some are sketch-like (“Crossing”, “The Jewish Market in Chicago”), and some frankly essays (“King Ben”, “Marinus van der Lubbe”), most are—though always inspired by his life—stylized nearly to the point of rough-and-ready allegory, peopled by symbolic figures. This is why they transcend the limits of conceptless social realism, and become distillates, polemics in the medium of narrative, pointed but rarely overdrawn. These pieces’ broader truth-content depends on the fact that they express more than merely accidental particulars, without doing violence to the rich particularity of their material.


It’s at once significant that Paul Mattick’s early writing was born of his own experience, and artistically mediated in the form of the short story. This sets his work against the model of the workers’ inquiry, later so popular among left-leninist intellectuals who were very proud of themselves for ‘going to the people’.33 The radical sociologist slumming it approaches the exotic experience of ‘the workers’ from outside, as an object of study, collects data in its immediacy, and analyses it—generally in order to find what he set out to find. Mattick has no need to fetishise working-class life as a separate object in this way, because it is his life. In the early 1930s, Anton Pannekoek—an academic and latecomer to council communist perspectives—paternalistically reproached Mattick and his friends who published International Council Correspondence for writing theory in terms that ‘the workers’ wouldn’t understand.34 Never mind that the journal’s whole editorial group (and plenty of its writers) were workers! We educate ourselves. We write for our own self-clarification. Our terms are determined by precision, rigour, truth—they’re not watered down to spoonfeed our fellows. Our writing thus is a weapon for a class supposed to be too stupid and stunted to ever grasp our social situation through our own efforts. Those who understand will, those who won’t won’t—though maybe they will one day, when driven by the force of historical circumstances. “The ‘consciousness’ to rebel against and to change society is not developed by the ‘propaganda’ of conscious minorities, but by the real and direct propaganda of events.” 35 To be a seller of labour-power is to be ever a means, being-for-another, never an end in our own right. Only individuals who learn to think and act for themselves will be capable of breaking out of this condition, of reconstructing the world from top to bottom, and we learn through the fight to do so.36 While this process is necessarily social, relational, and intersubjective, we must be driven to it by an urgent need to critically comprehend our own lives, to transform them, to make them at last worth living, rather than a nagging sense of duty to some separate group or reified cause. Thus a working-class movement that will let itself be led or instructed or represented by anyone is useless from a revolutionary standpoint, as it merely runs along bourgeois grooves.37 The intellectual and artistic self-activity of proletarians is in its very existence a protest, however modest, against our role-determination: a fungible, vacuous, massified, dehumanised labour-reservoir.38 Mattick doesn’t hand in clumsy strike reports to some learned professor or professional revolutionary whose job it is to schematically order the raw immediacy of the dumb manual worker. He styles and shapes salient fragments of his own experience into narratives that, taken together, are at once aesthetically compelling and have considerable critical content. And by doing so, he rattles the bars of the proletarian condition, clawing toward the potential of human life yet to come.



Council communists have been frequently reproached for being myopically ‘economistic’,39 either due to the importance they place on the immanent crisis tendencies of the accumulation process, their focus on the workplace as the key site of struggle in which capitalist production can be directly arrested, or their hostility to forms like the party40 that buttress the fetishistic separation—which communist revolution would need to overcome—of the ‘sphere of politics’ from the living ferment of real social practice.41 Paul Mattick’s early work, however, presents one more piece of evidence against this charge. The pieces collected here—written between 1924 and 1934 during Mattick’s last years in Germany at the bitter end of the post-revolutionary wave of proletarian contestation, and through his first years in Chicago as an immigrant in the midst of the Great Depression and unemployed workers’ movement—are clear contributions to a critique of capitalist society as a whole.42


Mattick clearly doesn't see the capital-labour relation as obtaining only in the workplace.43 His stories reveal capital as a total social form that penetrates every aspect–cultural, institutional, ideological, psychological–of proletarians' lives. Only the earliest story, 1924’s “The Conveyor Belt”,44 takes place at the point of production. For many decades, council communists have faced the accusation that they want nothing but to take over capitalist production processes and run them just as before, only without a boss.45 Yet “The Conveyor Belt” dramatises how the time discipline necessitated by a system in which “moments are the elements of profit”46 combines with subordination to dangerous machinery to result in the gory death of a worker. The issue is not whether the factory is private or collective property, but that the proletarian “is only a thing, an appendage of the productive mechanism.”47 Tragedies like this one could only be avoided if the associated producers themselves had real, substantive control over the content, aims, rhythm, and material-technical conditions of their production processes, as well as their overall social context.48 Stylistically, the exaggerated grotesquerie of “The Conveyor Belt” bears some similarity to expressionist war-writing, like the “Three Fragments” of Walter Rheiner, first husband of Mattick's wife Frieda, who he knew around the time of writing in the radical artistic circles of Cologne. In Mattick, “the engine stopped shaking, and the belt groaned to a halt. His head crushed, it tilted down toward the workplace. One eye dangled from a long, slimy tendon next to his blood-smeared mouth, a cherry held gently by teeth. His leg hung from the transmission like a sweater in a wardrobe.”49 In Rheiner, “a grenade tears through a group of comrades. One of them falls into his arms, the neck-stump gurgles hot blood into his face. Backbone and brain become icy, rigid.”50 Mattick’s allusion to the latter style of prose51 emphasises a social parallel via a formal parallel. He thus implicitly points to the unity of capitalist society—“wading in blood and dripping with filth”52—which slaughters disposable proletarians in the factory's frantic race to valorise capital just as it does on the battlefields of inter-imperialist wars.


These early pieces show Mattick as a pioneer of what would later be called the critique of everyday life.53 In his stories, the ‘spheres’ of politics and economics stand revealed as what they are beneath the fetish-forms and apparently objective categories:54 the social life and strife of people. 1927’s “Crossing”55 shows the competitiveness of the ethnically and occupationally fragmented proletariat on a transatlantic ocean liner carrying immigrants to the US, how the class structure follows us everywhere, and how we have all been compelled to internalise exploitative mentalities. The “Klingelpütz” story56 wryly highlights the absurd barbarity of penal institutions, implicitly thematising the continuity of proletarian existence inside and outside of jail. The narrative is lent force by the fact that it was based on Mattick’s brief time in jail as a result of taking part in a factory occupation at Leverkusen, and for his outstanding charges of sabotage of the Deutz plant during a strike, indicating clearly that prisons are a weapon on the other side of the class struggle.57 Far from a syndicalist perspective whose beef with capitalism is exhausted by workplace grievances, much of Mattick’s early work is concerned with the critique of bourgeois culture and ideology—especially evident in “King Ben”, born of the shock and disorientation he felt upon emigrating to the US in 1926, and attempting to acclimate to working life there. This is one of the few pieces that’s not so much short fiction as what Theodor Adorno would later term a critical model,58 taking a particular contemporary phenomenon as an entry-point and tracing its contradictions in constellation, in order to bring to light the capitalist social relations condensed therein.59 In fact, “King Ben”60 bears striking similarities to Adorno’s own early critical efforts of roughly the same time period—certainly in its tone, but also in its substance.61 The story of a charismatic cult leader surrounded by scandalous culture industry hype serves as the fulcrum of an uncompromising analysis of the ideological thralldom of the American working class62—“psychological[ly] adapt[ed] to the law of life which values and treats the individual according to their ability to make money”, they live vicariously through the media, “enjoy[ing] what they’re prevented from doing”.63 Mattick paints a Janus-faced picture, arguably anticipating Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialectic of enlightenment:64 the most disenchanted, hardened, “ruthless”, technologically-rationalised, capitalistically-developed nation is thereby also most prone to revert to “intellectual obfuscation,” archaic religious fundamentalism, fatalistic myth, “ridiculous mysticism”, and a “slimy fog of platitudes”,65 succumbing to “the element of unreason [in]…a reason that merely serves particular interests”.66 His savage critique of the illusions of those who think they can retreat from class society into cults and communes still finds plenty of targets today—not only among the proliferation of religious sects preying on fear and impotence, but also the voluntaristic radicals preaching desertion and exodus, busying themselves with neo-jeffersonian land projects, atavistic agricultural ventures, and the insular world of their allegedly prefigurative intentional communities.


One of the few other pieces collected here that’s not semi-autobiographical fiction is the spirited defence of Marinus van der Lubbe.67 Van der Lubbe was a council communist construction worker who set fire to the Reichstag in 1933,68 hoping to galvanise insurrection. He was subsequently slandered as a nazi agent provocateur69 by the bolshevised Communist Party—at this point wedded to class-collaborationist electoral coalitions pursuing the ludicrous strategy of beating the fascists at the polls—and finally executed by the nazis on January 10th, 1934.70 Mattick’s lucid, brutally unsentimental assessment of the course of the workers’ movement and the fundamental historical limitations of any communist revolutionary attempts in the early 20th century has always provoked the narrow, opportunist mind to proffer the pathetically smug ‘gotcha’: so if making communism was impossible, and if the 1917-’23 world-revolutionary wave was doomed to (self-)defeat, what would you have us do? Nothing? Sit back with our clean hands folded in ultraleft purity, satisfied with our superior critical comprehension of unripe socio-historical conditions? But this is not what Mattick did. He has an exemplary record as a street-fighter, a striker and factory-occupier, an expropriator, a participant in campaigns of the unemployed to directly seize their means of subsistence. Mattick once wrote a line pertaining to the slaughtered spartacists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, which in fact reveals the secret key to his own attitude, as well as van der Lubbe’s, who he obviously admired (in spite, perhaps, of his better judgement): “There were only two ways open for the revolutionists: either to go down with the forces whose cause was lost in advance, or to return to the fold of bourgeois democracy and perform social work for the ruling classes. For the real revolutionist there was, of course, only one way: to go down with the fighting workers. This is why Eugen Leviné spoke of the revolutionist as ‘a dead person on furlough.’” 71 The self-abolition of the proletariat is quite literally a desperate, suicidal drive.72 Perhaps the possibility of revolutionary struggle is bound up with the rock-bottom realisation that death is no worse than scraping out a miserable, stunted existence every day under capitalism, “a system which I find thoroughly repulsive and by which my life is spoiled”, as Mattick put it in his clumsy but fiery fledgling English.73 As a proletarian shuttling between the factory and the scrounging lot of the jobless, Mattick was acutely, intimately acquainted with the way in which everyday life in capitalist society stripped him and his fellow workers of all honour, dignity, and independence, the very status of adult human beings worthy of reciprocal recognition and respect.74 Van der Lubbe’s gesture of revolt was hopeless, born of his own despair, and certainly did not awaken the class to action as he intended. Indeed, it arguably did more harm than good, and Mattick seems to have known this.75 But it was the gesture of a man of integrity who would not countenance the electoral spectacle papering over the mounting terrorism against his class, while so-called ‘communists’ and ‘socialists’—whose reactionary labour-nationalism had paved the way for fascism76—time and again appeased the nazis in the Reichstag, “prolong[ing] their bankrupt existence not by combatting fascism, to be sure, but by…promis[ing] their capitalists…to do the fascist work in their own special manner.”77 Mattick could not sit by and passively sanction the KPD’s salaried parliamentarians, puppets pulled hither and thither by the geopolitical strings of a state-capitalist regime, disgracing and abetting the murder of a revolutionary proletarian, a council communist comrade, acting in good conscience. Van der Lubbe died, in the face of all slander, staking a claim to the humanity constitutively denied our class. This is the poignancy of his tragic story. This is the reason Mattick, the most uncompromising of all anti-voluntarists, dedicated his final testament—Marxism: Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie?, a balance sheet of all prior communist thought and deed, ruthlessly exposing the insurmountable objective blocks on which it foundered—to a man he’d never met: Marinus van der Lubbe, perpetrator of one of the most futile voluntarist acts of the 20th century.


The proletarians in Mattick’s stories are rarely what’s conventionally considered ‘politically motivated’—unless they’re stooges he’s mocking, as in “The Dream of the Bolshevised Professional Revolutionary”.78 1930’s “The Bees”79 presents an equivocal picture of the daily life of Sam, a participant in the 1927-’28 Colorado miners’ strike, who only joins up with the Industrial Workers of the World because the struggle compels it. He lives for his family even though he doesn’t really seem to like them much, especially not his wife. He’s married with children because it’s what’s done, and otherwise his life would be utterly empty drudgery. Tenderness comes only when Sam is drunk and exhausted, falling asleep on the floor, at last dropping his thorny carapace and letting his children climb all over him—much like Mattick’s own surly father. There’s a subtle critique of the bourgeois model and function of the family here: it’s revealed in the story as one of capitalist society’s few perfunctory, limited forms of social intimacy, which puts innumerable walls between men and women and children, but at the same time beats as the feeble heart of a heartless world, a reason for workers to go on living.80


In recent decades, the French group Théorie Communiste have made an argument81—influential in the limited milieu that thrives on these debates—that the council communists must be disavowed because they affirmed the proletarian condition.82 Yet Mattick’s aim was “the abolition of the proletarian class through the abolition of all class relations”,83 and virtually nothing of this so-called affirmation can be seen in his stories. In “King Ben” he spells out, in words anticipating the situationists, that “the masses are forced to live such that life ends up passing them by”.84 Sam the miner in “The Bees” scrapes out a shit existence. To paraphrase Marx, only outside of work, when he’s on strike, does he feel himself. Only then does he have half a chance to live his own time: “As a direct result of boycotting the factory and the mines, new conditions had taken hold. The alarm clock no longer forced them to gulp down boiling hot coffee. They were free to eat breakfast in peace. They could even attend meetings as they so choose. And they were finally free to do something for themselves…They were now acutely conscious that they were more than a tool, a screw or lever, or a wage slave.”85 This hardly sounds like a factoryist singing from the arbeit macht frei hymnal! Rather, to Mattick, those fighting for complete control of production by the free association of producers seek to decenter and minimise the place of necessary social provisioning86 in their lives, making its concrete shapes as pleasant as possible.87 For isn’t having freely disposable time in which to enjoy life the only thing truly worth fighting for? The only true measure of wealth, beyond its narrow, impoverished, historically-limited determination as abstract labour-time? Workers’ councils are thus not the raison d’être of some stakhanovistic fantasyland, but only a precondition of a communism oriented to the free development of each and all; to rich, all-sided activity; to pleasure; to rest; to beauty; to honest and profound social connection and communication and a love reinvented; to the unregulated expression of curious and marvellous individuality; to sensuous, intellectual, and emotional adventure; to truly experiencing our time not as a dead husk carved up for sale, but as a stream surging forward with the vital pulse of desire, as we at last consciously make our own history, shape our own conditions of life. Mattick, faithful to Marx when few others were, says outright that our triumph means the end of our present conditions of life, not the same proletarian lot under new management: “If the proletariat ever succeeds, it will pass out of existence. When they become really human, when they rediscover what it means to laugh and fight, to truly love.”88 So long as the proletariat remains the proletariat—the acted-upon, homogenised object-side of the social process89—we drag on “the pre-history of humanity”,90 what Adorno called mere bestial, apparently fate-ruled “natural history”91—Sam’s somnambulant existence. Only in open struggle against “this damned, dirty social order” do we step forward with confidence.92 Any scrounging back of a little pride, even Sam “slicking down his hair on Sunday”,93 is an attempt at defiantly “walking upright” as Ernst Bloch once put it,94 a refusal to assent to one’s objective status as a disposable tool for the valorisation of capital. This is no trivial detail, this is the very fuel and fruit of workers’ self-activity in the class struggle, its transformative power. This is why, if world revolution is ever to usher in human community, no party can exist that could possibly set itself and its interests over and against the proletarians fighting to overcome their proletarian condition.95 A party is just more dead weight pushing our shoulders back into a submissive posture, breeding separate power and political specialists96—with the explicit or implicit justification that someone needs to think for us because we can’t do it ourselves. No worker who has been driven to the point of fighting the old bosses will hesitate to fight the new bosses, as proven by all the 20th century proletarian uprisings across the whole world. So often they fought regimes claiming to be ‘socialist’, and so often the proles organised themselves in councils.


Dignity, confidence, independence—from a lifetime of infuriating, humiliating experience, proles know in our bones that our conditions of life conspire to utterly squash these things in us. So often our character-structures are consequently constituted as meek, passive, emotionally stunted. So often we’re stuck in a rut of frustrated futility, self-loathing and resentful of others, quick to look for someone more powerful with whom to vicariously identify, or someone even lower on the social ladder to sadistically dominate.97 Revolutionary struggle is born of the basest necessities—we would never take such life-and-death risks otherwise—but as it develops, it becomes more than this, it makes us more than we could ever be as proletarians in and through the very process of attempting to transcend that condition. In Otto Rühle’s luminous words, everything must be geared “to trigger the initiative of the masses, to free them from authority, to develop their self-confidence … Every fighter must know and feel why he is fighting, what he is fighting for. Everyone must become in his consciousness a living bearer of the revolutionary struggle and creative member of the communist reconstruction. … Therefore: transformation of the party-conception into a federative community-conception, as in the council idea. Therefore: supersession of external commitments and compulsion through internal readiness and willingness. Therefore: elevation of communism from the demagogic prattle of the paper cliché to the height of one of the most internally captivating and fulfilling experiences of the whole world.”98 This is what Mattick’s story “The Bees” illustrates, in however tentative a way. This is why the old struggles matter—however limited, false, fated, futile. No revolutionary proletarian who perished in the fight to become human must be abandoned to die a second time. If we let that happen, then we ourselves become the enemies Walter Benjamin feared, from whom “even the dead will not be safe”.99


While Mattick powerfully depicts ‘apolitical’ proletarians forced to struggle out of necessity, he’s certainly not engaged in a myth-making project, singing the praises of an always-automatically-rebellious working class. He paints a complicated picture of workers pulled back and forth by contradictory social and economic pressures. “End of the Line”,100 written in 1933, is an interesting, oblique approach to the era of rising fascism. The council communists contended that ultimately-futile efforts to manage, mitigate, or defer the now-permanent accumulation crisis were propelling capitalism into a phase of global fascisisation, albeit with distinct and warring variants in different nations, depending on their respective socio-historical context.101 A major aspect of this developmental tendency has been the quasi-corporatist102 integration of the reproduction of the proletariat with the vicissitudes of the state-finance nexus.103 Bill the streetcar worker in “End of the Line” is still a wage-labourer, but his class position is complicated by an investment scheme. He owns shares in the company he works for, so he identifies his interests with that of the firm: “In theory, he owned at least a fraction of the car he drove. For these reasons, Bill had been a good worker. Anyone who rode for free was not only cheating the company, but Bill Waters as well.”104 This paid off, for a while, and so he bought a house and became a small-time landlord, renting out a room. Bill’s situation—which would become common in the state-mediated, debt-financed reconstruction period following the second inter-imperialist war’s massive bleedout of surplus capital and labour105—is emblematic of the way the class-relation slices across particular individuals, fragmenting their allegiances.106 When his employer goes bankrupt in 1929, so does Bill, his ‘buy-in’ to capital backfiring. Without any clear sense of class consciousness or the concrete possibility of solidaristic struggle, he’s driven to aimless, resentful, private despair, going on a would-be shooting spree. He represents in miniature the response of the ruined middle-strata lashing out with fascist terror. In a hellish circle very much in evidence in recent years, subjectively fascist politics (only implicitly alluded to in this story) serve as a safety valve, sucking in the victims when objectively fascist economic developments prove unable to ward off the reemergence of capitalist crisis.


In sketches like “The Jewish Market in Chicago”107 and essays such as “Black Americans”,108 Mattick is attentive109 to the racialisation of the proletariat, Black chattel slavery’s role in the development of capitalism, and how its legacy continues to scar and stratify workers, feeding intraclass competition.110 But he also points to the ways in which the objective pressures exerted by capitalist crises, as they force former adversaries in the scramble to sell labour-power to struggle together, can begin to undermine racist attitudes among white workers, and how practical solidarity can overcome ‘racial’ division. This is the theme of “Dynamo”,111 a 1934 story which appears strikingly relevant in the present historical constellation. Widespread immiseration, concentrated in racialised ghettos, results in proletarians unable to pay their rent. They hope that working as musicians or in the sex industry will afford them a better life, as the possibilities of ‘regular’ employment shrink with the capitalist crisis.112 A spontaneous eviction defence spirals into a riot, in which police kill a Black man, Johnny, spurring further multiracial proletarian protests. Johnny’s neighbour Phyllis “marched in the demonstration following the coffins, wondering and crying. What were the red flags for, the songs, the chants; what did any of it have to do with Johnny? What did she have to do with any of this? Nonetheless, she marched, and thousands marched with her.”113 Then as now, it’s not clear to most proletarians what ‘politics’—radical or otherwise—have to do with their lives; nonetheless, there are times when their material conditions114 drive them to fight.115 Such mass actions don’t wait on party-education, they don’t wait on class consciousness, they’re not undertaken for any ‘ideal’—but, however nascently, they can transform their participants, sharpening their perception of the capitalist state’s barbarism and their own potential collective power. They can herald the dawn of class consciousness,116 and even, in the right circumstances, the formation of the class’s organs of revolutionary combat and societal reconstruction—the councils.


This is a lesson Mattick took from his own life, one that’s hard to learn for political ideologists existing in rarefied realms who are rarely compelled to fight out of necessity. One of the most cogent council communist criticisms of parties117 is that even those like the KAPD, which professed the best of intentions not to exercise a dictatorship over the class, tend to spirit their members away to a myopic bubble in which it becomes difficult to discern the present reality of proletarian life through the thick mist of political preoccupation.118 This is a risk for all of us with an arcane interest in old marxist texts, but the young Mattick’s stories serve as an antidote to seeing the world only through the schema of doctrine and ‘positions’, which are ultimately irrelevant if they’re untethered to any material force. Mattick never tired of reminding us of this sobering truth, even as he poured his passion into theoretical clarification.119 In his early work, Mattick returns us to the social-historical experience that he always insisted marxism had raised to the level of science. Marx, in his mature critique, moved from the analysis of apparent phenomena on the surface of society to the underlying essential categories, which he then presented dialectically, tracing the logic of their inner connections.120 These stories make the journey back to the social phenomena; then, interestingly, in his later critical theory, he turns to exposition of the essential tendencies in a way that would have been impossible if his thought had not been enriched by experiential content, if he had merely restated apodictic articles of faith. Marxism is not invariant dogma, it is its era comprehended in thought, through the ever-renewed movement between appearance and essence, discerning and illuminating every intimation of the revolutionary overcoming of present conditions. This is why it is a science that must remain living, and thus open to grasping theoretically its real circumstances.



Though the stories of the young Mattick were written nearly a century ago, they feel urgent and timely, as the themes they treat still resonate remarkably with the contemporary reality of capitalist society. In the early 1930s, Mattick was studying Frankfurt School economist Henryk Grossmann and his reconstruction of the marxian theory of capital accumulation’s self-undermining secular crisis tendency, which he posited would lead to a ‘breakdown’ of capitalist production.121 Grossmann’s young readers, Henk Canne-Meijer and Paul Mattick, who exchanged letters discussing the former’s theory in depth, were more attentive to the ways in which stagnating accumulation provoked state-mediated counter-tendencies which would keep the capitalist system dragging on in an ever-heightened condition of what they termed permanent crisis—sometimes latent, sometimes manifest, but always insoluble short of the revolutionary abolition of capital, or the extinction of humanity.122 For roughly a hundred years, we have been living in the era of permanent crisis,123 which Mattick would spend the rest of his life analysing through the critique of prevailing bourgeois economic theories, proving that the policies based thereon were incapable of resolving capital’s immanent contradictions.124 His early work provides a representative survey of the multifarious symptoms of the barbarism bred of an obsolete social form in its protracted death-throes, symptoms which still wrack our world, despite all the intervening years’ phenomenal changes.


The socio-historical impasse Mattick perceptively depicted in these early writings is still ours. Accelerated time discipline in production on the one hand, masses of superfluous proletarians unable to sell their labour-time on the other, divided by national-ethnic, ‘racial’, and sexual stratification and competition, yet at times compelled to fight together despite it all, funnelled into penal institutions, grey economies, forced to fight for basic shelter, taking refuge in ideological cul-de-sacs, pseudo-community, and illusory palliatives, or the delusional self-importance of the professional revolutionary in some moribund sect, driven to desperate, isolated acts (whether principled, like Marinus van der Lubbe’s Reichstag fire, or aimless, like the streetcar worker’s gun-waving rampage), and occasionally spontaneous mass revolt which quickly burns itself out—these are the conditions familiar to anyone who has participated in and theorised the catastrophes and struggles of the present historical constellation. Mattick had no shortage of revolutionary adventures in his youth, but he left us no hagiography of those days or their protagonists. In his words, “as exciting as it is to recall the proletarian actions in Dresden, in Saxonia, in Germany – the meetings, demonstrations, strikes, street-fights, the heated discussions: the hopes, fears and disappointments, the bitterness of defeat and the pain of prison and death – yet no lessons but negative ones can be drawn from all these undertakings. All the energy and all the enthusiasm were not enough to bring about a social change nor to alter the contemporary mind. The lesson learned was how not to proceed.”125 If nothing else, Mattick and the council communists left us a map of traps and dead-ends. The way out of the permanent crisis remains, as ever, for the revolutionary class to discover.