By Comrade Jimbo Slice
November 12, 2023
The Western Left is searching for answers. “Read more theory” is a demand many of us have probably heard, in the hopes that we might find a blueprint for revolution in past analyses of then-current affairs. Robyn K. Winters’ new collection of the writings of Anton Pannekoek attempts to better illuminate the principles of council communists in the early 20th century, of whom Pannekoek was the most prolific. The utility of this tendency within Marxism, according to Winters, is its “synthesis of the best elements of these two great revolutionary traditions-freedom and organization.” Pannekoek’s writings come from a time when Marxists who did not defer to the Soviet Union were shouting to be heard above the roars of communists, fascists, and social democrats. He could not anticipate the context we find ourselves in now, so it is unlikely his work will yield the long-awaited blueprint. However, a re-examination (or first-time examination) of his writings may better inform how we imagine a socialist future.
From a historian’s perspective, the manuscript that offers more questions than answers can be just as valuable as the scrawled note that provide the exact details one was looking for. In Part 1 of their collection, Winters offers us the former: a collection of the chapters of The Workers’ Way to Freedom as Pannekoek originally wrote them in his manuscript, as opposed to the article versions originally publicized. Long-time scholars of libertarian socialism might find value in scrutinizing the manuscript versions and how they compare with the article versions, which are included in Appendix B. Part 2 includes articles Pannekoek wrote for different publications, as well as published letters, some of which were written in the early 1950s and illustrate talking points that Pannekoek refined and clarified over many years. Winters includes frequent helpful notes about where each chapter was originally published, as well as the format in which it was written.
In brief, Pannekoek views the workers’ council as the ultimate realization of the Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat. He viewed social democracy, trade unions, and socialist parties as non-liberatory due to their willingness to work within a capitalist-dominated system, and viewed the communist parties of his day as non-liberatory due to their insistence on the party’s place at the top of the hierarchy, mandating production as a new managerial class and still squeezing the surplus value from the workers. Pannekoek’s views were informed chiefly by his disgust with social democratic parties’ approval of their countries’ participation in the First World War, and by his dismay at the Bolsheviks’ installation of a new ruling class. He and other council communists instead advocated propagandizing workers towards self-liberation: by calling strikes irrespective of trade union directives and forming councils that did not take cues from socialist or communist party leaders, the workers would realize a dictatorship of the proletariat under their own power.
Previous reviews of Pannekoek’s work note his intensive criticism of not just Lenin’s ideological conclusions, but his methods for arriving at those conclusions. Philosophy scholar John Sommerville reviewed Pannekoek’s Lenin as Philosopher in 1948 and noted the great number of things that Pannekoek was against, as well as discerning Pannekoek’s objection to Lenin’s approach to critique. Russel L. Ackhoff of Wayne University expands on this by noting in his own review of Philosopher the depth of Pannekoek’s analysis of Russia’s historical development toward capitalism, and Lenin’s place within it. Ackhoff closes by stating that critics and non-critics of Lenin may sharpen their arguments by having read those of Pannekoek.
Similarly, Winters’ collection of Pannekoek’s writings may act as a whetstone for people sharpening their arguments both for and against council communism. Winters begins their introduction to the collection by lamenting the unbreakable link of association between Marxism and Leninism. They have succeeded, through this volume, in offering an alternative text for leftists that would rather not follow Lenin. Pannekoek carefully lays out a conception of history up through his own time period that offers a new leftist a complete picture of the struggle against capitalism: of the growth of private capitalism into monopoly capitalism, of the shortcomings of trade unions and social democracy, and of how the capitalist class will use both union victories and the right to vote to defuse the revolutionary potential of the working class. He also lays out what he finds objectionable about the Soviet economic system, which he terms “state capitalism” because the workers are still exploited for the benefit of a new bureaucratic bourgeoisie. Readers will find a compelling narrative of how the Bolshevik Revolution went wrong due to Russia’s own lack of previous capitalist development and ensured the Russian working class ended up in chains regardless.
However, skeptics will find errors in Pannekoek’s judgement and predictions about the future. At the end of The Workers’ Way to Freedom (page 174 of this edition), Pannekoek predicted that the workers in then-fascist countries would be able to revolt in great numbers for their own liberation, not for the restoration of the “middle-class democracy” destroyed by the fascists. In “The Failure of the Working Class”, published after the Second World War ended, Pannekoek explains that the German working class had not carried out a successful revolution because they had no example to follow for one: the 1918 revolution had not shown them a desirable future, and neither did Russian-directed Communist Party. The article shows, at best, Pannekoek trying to refine his vision of the future, and, at worst, doubling down on the idea that his method would have truly liberated the workers, if only they tried it.
Nevertheless, Pannekoek’s writing is often insightful and Winters is quite correct in wanting to publish the manuscript version of The Workers’ Way to Freedom. When viewed in the context of the events unfolding around Pannekoek in the 1930s and ‘40s, one can understand how Pannekoek arrived at his conclusions about the direction of the workers’ struggle. When read critically, his work raises questions that are important for leftists to consider. On page 181, Pannekoek predicts “the rise of the working class will be a historical process of economic and political fights combined, in different successive forms,” which he compares to the centuries-long saga of revolutions and transformations that led to the takeover of society by the bourgeoisie. Leftists must contemplate their roles in that rise: can one justify having spent their lives in pursuit of one course of action towards revolution? Are the successive forms of economic and political struggle represented in leftist organizations that petered out? Are we, the ideological inheritors of the struggle, able to justify spending our own lives, and the lives of those we organize, as test dummies for the revolution? We can only observe our times as we live in them, examine our motivations, and try to do right by the masses. Grappling with Pannekoek’s vision simply helps us better grasp the edges of our own imagined future.
The Workers’ Way to Freedom and Other Council Communist Writings can be pre-ordered here: https://shop.workingclasshistory.com/products/the-workers-way-to-freedom-and-other-council-communist-writings-anton-pannekoek