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A workers' council is a form of political and economic organization in which a single local administrative division, such as a municipality or a county, is governed by a council made up of temporary and instantly revocable delegates elected in the region's workplaces.
A variation is a soldiers' council, when the delegates are chosen amongst (mutinous) soldiers. A mix of workers and soldiers also existed (like the 1918 German Arbeiter- und Soldatenrat).
In a system with temporary and instantly revocable delegates, workers decide on what their agenda is and what their needs are. They also mandate a temporary delegate to divulge and pursue them. The temporary delegates are elected among the workers themselves, can be instantly revoked if they betray their mandate, and are supposed to change frequently. The delegates act as messengers, carrying and interchanging the intention of the groups of workers.
On a larger scale, a group of delegates may in turn elect a delegate in a higher position to pursue their mandate, and so on, until the top delegates are running the industrial system of a state. In such a system, decision power rises from bottom to top from the agendas of the workers themselves, and there is no decision imposition from the top, as would happen in the case of a power seizure by a bureaucratic layer that is immune to instant revocation.
Workers' councils originated in Russia in 1905, with the workers' councils (soviets) acting as labor committees which coordinated strike activities throughout the cities due to repression of trade unions. During the Revolutions of 1917-23, many socialists, such as Anton Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemburg, advocated for the control of the economy by the workers' councils. Several times in modern history, the idea of workers' councils has been attributed to similar forms of organization. Examples include:
Despite Lenin's declarations that "the workers must demand the immediate establishment of genuine control, to be exercised by the workers themselves", on May 30, the Menshevik minister of labor, Matvey Skobelev, pledged to not give the control of industry to the workers but instead to the state: "The transfer of enterprises into the hands of the people will not at the present time assist the revolution [...] The regulation and control of industry is not a matter for a particular class. It is a task for the state. Upon the individual class, especially the working class, lies the responsibility for helping the state in its organizational work."
In the workers' councils organised as part of the 1918 German revolution, factory organisations, such as the General Workers' Union of Germany (AAUD), formed the basis for organising region-wide councils. The council communists in the Communist Workers' Party of Germany advocated organising "on the basis of places of work, not trades, and to establish a National Federation of Works Committees."
Councils operate on the principle of recallable delegates. This means that elected delegates may be recalled at any time through a vote in a form of impeachment. Recall of management committee members, specialist professionals such as engineers, and delegates to higher councils was observed in the Central Workers Council of Greater Budapest during 1956, where delegates were removed for industrial, organisational, and political reasons.
Workers' councils combine to elect higher bodies for coordinating between one another. This means that the upper councils are not superior to the lower councils, but are instead built from and operated by them. The national council would therefore have delegates from every city in the country. Their nature means that workers' councils do away with traditional centralized governments and instead give power indirectly to the people. This type of democratic order is called council democracy. The Central Workers Council of Greater Budapest occupied this role in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, between late October and early January 1957, where it grew out of local factory committees.
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A workers' council is a deliberative assembly, composed of working class members, intended to institute workers' self-management or workers' control. Unlike a trade union, in a workers' council the workers are assumed to be in actual control of the workplace, rather than merely negotiating with employers through collective bargaining. They are a form of workplace democracy, where different workplaces coordinate production through their elected delegates.
Amongst both Marxists and anarchists there is a widespread belief that workers' councils embody the fundamental principles of socialism, such as workers' control over production and distribution. Whereas socialism from above is carried out by a centralized state run by an elite bureaucratic apparatus, here socialism from below is seen as the self-administration and self-rule of the working class.
Some left communists (particularly council communists) and anarchists support a council-based society; believing that only the workers themselves can spark a revolution and so workers' councils will be the foundation of the revolution. There are also Leninists (for example the Trotskyist International Socialist Tendency and its offshoots) who advocate a council-based society, but maintain that workers' councils cannot carry out a revolution without the leadership of a vanguard party.
During the May 1968 events in France, "[t]he largest general strike that ever stopped the economy of an advanced industrial country, and the first wildcat general strike in history", the Situationists, against the unions and the Communist Party that were starting to side with the de Gaulle government to contain the revolt, called for the formation of workers' councils to take control of the cities, expelling union leaders and left-wing bureaucrats, in order to keep the power in the hands of the workers with direct democracy.