PM Press Blog, Review

A telescope to a communist future? Review of Anton Pannekoek, The Workers’ Way to Freedom and Other Council Communist Writings

By Henry Laws
Fightback Newsletter
December 1st, 2023

The publication of a new collection of writings by the Dutch council communist Anton Pannekoek is welcome in the current difficult situation for the socialist movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand. We are a marginal political force, scattered amongst political organisations, infoshops, publishing collectives, loose networks, media outfits and single-issue/single-area community organisations.i We do not have a base among fellow workers who have an interest in creating socialism. Our organising is not grounded in an integration of theory, means and ends; thus, we engage in reactive and defensive collective action, disconnected from a systemic analysis of our society that might produce a vision of socialism and a revolutionary strategy to create it. Socialists in Aotearoa must reconstruct and integrate our theory, means and ends, or we will remain a subculture for the foreseeable future. This review examines how this book can contribute to this.

As Pannekoek is little known in Aotearoa, I will provide a brief overview of his life. Born in the village of Vassen in the Netherlands, Anton Pannekoekii (1873-1960) lived two lives: one as an astronomer, the other as a Marxist.iii His career in astronomy began with his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in physics and mathematics at the University of Leiden, after which he was hired by the University of Amsterdam following the First World War, where he stayed for the rest of his academic career. Pannekoek engaged in pioneering research in astronomy that led to him getting honorary university degrees, gold medals from astronomical associations, as well having a crater on the Moon, an asteroid, and Amsterdam University’s Institute of Astronomy named after him.iv Initially a liberal, it was through reading Edward Bellamy’s Equality that Pannekoek adopted Marxism.v He then joined the Dutch Social Democratic Workers Party and in 1906 was invited to be a full-time lecturer at the Social Democratic Party/SPD school in At the school’s lectures and in SPD publications, Pannekoek regularly espoused revolutionary politics and critiqued Eduard Bernstein’s reformism. During the First World War, he critiqued pro-war social democrats, with Vladimir Lenin positively citing Pannekoek in his State and Revolution.vii When the Russian Revolution occurred, Pannekoek initially supported it and joined the Communist Party of the Netherlands. However, due to Pannekoek’s critiques of trade unions and parliamentarism, Lenin criticised Pannekoek in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder.viii In response, Pannekoek rejected Leninism, helped create the Communist Workers’ Party of the Netherlands/KAPN and worked on developing the theory and practice of council communism for the rest of his life.ix

Council communism, also known as the Dutch-German current of left communism, is an unorthodox Marxist tendency.x It arose within the Communist Party of Germany/KPD that formed during the German Revolution.xi One KPD faction concluded that capitalism’s development in Western Europe had made parliament and trade unions counter-revolutionary. When the Third/Communist International formed in 1919 and concluded that communists should participate in parliaments and trade unions, the anti-parliament and anti-union faction split off and formed the Communist Workers Party/KAPD in 1920, which joined with communists across Eurasia to form the Communist Workers’ International/KAI in 1922.xii This was the body which first developed council communism, which rejected social democracy and trade unionism as reformist, criticised the Russian Revolution for creating a state capitalist Soviet Union, argued for workers to self-organise in strike committees and workers’ councils and to either abandon parties or to only have propagandistic parties.xiii Council communism declined by the 1930’s due to the end of the 1917-1927 wave of revolutionary workers councils, as well as infighting and the rise of fascism.xiv However, post-Second World War, continued council communist organising and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution led to the rise of council communist-inspired groups such as Socialisme ou Barbarie Informations et Correspondances Ouvrières/ICO, the Correspondence Committee, the Situationists and others who influenced the New Left globally, including in Australasia, as well as uprisings like May 1968 in France and the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal.xv The failures of such uprisings and the rise of neoliberalism led to council communism declining again. The end of the Soviet Union and the Great Recession led to a resurgence of interest in council communism and workers’ councils, while groups like the Council Communist Collective and Movaut have formed.xvi It is in this context that The Workers’ Way to Freedom was published.

The Workers’ Way to Freedom and Other Council Communist Writings, transcribed, edited and composed by Working Class History contributor Robyn K. Winters, is a book of two halves. The first half, The Workers’ Way to Freedom, is a previously unpublished manuscript written by Anton Pannekoek in 1935. It provides an outline of Pannekoek’s council communist politics as of 1935, covering similar ground to his 1946 book Workers’ Councils.xvii The manuscript contains Pannekoek’s analysis of capitalism, his opposition to social democracy, Leninism, trade unionism, fascism, the state and the middle class. It also contains his conception of workers self-emancipation through abolishing capitalism and creating communism via a revolution where workers engage in general strikes and expropriate the means of production through strike committees and workers councils. The second half, Other Council Communist Writings, is a collection of Pannekoek’s articles from 1936–1954 which further develop the arguments that Pannekoek made in the first half, most of which are available online.xviii This section is followed by Paul Mattick Sr’s obituary for Pannekoek from 1962, and article versions of several chapters from The Workers’ Way to Freedom that were published in the journal International Council Correspondence.xix

This collection of Pannekoek’s writings has many contributions to make to the reconstruction of socialist theory and practice in Aotearoa and beyond. The first is Pannekoek’s critique of social democracy. Grounded in his Marxist analysis and his participation in social democracy before and during the First World War, Pannekoek argued that social democratic parties’ administration of capitalist states, which exist to reproduce capitalist class rule through repressive and ideological means, as well as the economic stabilisation of capitalism, transformed such parties from being revolutionary socialists to being reformist capitalists.xx This shift resulted in these parties being led by a new middle class of managers, technicians, specialists and intellectuals who had a class interest in reforming but not ending capitalism.xxi It also transformed the consciousness, needs and powers of the workers who voted for these parties, as their political horizon became confined to reforming capitalism and seeing voting for politicians as the best way to bring about political change, rather than self-organising for their own emancipation.xxii This critique remains relevant, as there are still reformist left-wing parliamentary parties with middle-class leaderships that politically integrate workers into the state and capitalism through electoralism, whether it’s democratic socialists and left-wing populists globally or the Labour Party, the Greens and Te Pati Māori in Aotearoa.xxiii Pannekoek’s analysis helps us recognise that this happens not because we elected the wrong politicians but because electoralism helps consensually perpetuate the capitalist system through perpetuating capitalist political hegemony amongst workers.xxiv Therefore, Pannekoek’s critique of social democracy reiterates that social democracy is a dead end for workers and that building a revolutionary socialist politics today necessitates rejecting it wholesale.

Anton Pannekoek also critiqued tendencies that claimed to be revolutionary. This brings us to Pannekoek’s second contribution to reconstructing socialist politics, his critique of Leninism. Pannekoek rooted his critique in his analysis of the Russian Revolution, which he argued began as a mass uprising by workers, peasants and middle-class intellectuals.xxv However, due to global isolation, Russia’s economic backwardness and a peasant majority, the revolution degenerated. The Bolsheviks created a Soviet Union ruled exclusively by them and constituted a new bureaucratic ruling class out of middle-class intellectuals and pro-Bolshevik workers, which then initiated state-led capitalist industrialisation to economically develop Russia.xxvi This Leninist model was then exported globally via the Third International, which ordered its communist party member sections to implement it through electoralism, trade unionism and armed struggle.xxvii These “Bolshevized” parties were to become the substitutionist vanguard of the workers and peasants, thus negating their self-organisation.xxviii I disagree with Pannekoek’s characterisation of the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries as capitalist, as I would argue that the Soviet-type societies were neither capitalist nor socialist but bureaucraticised social formations that reverted to capitalism due to their internal contradictions and their external relations to the capitalist world system.xxix However, I would argue that Pannekoek’s critique of Leninism has become more relevant over time, because when viewed with sober senses, the five remaining “Marxist-Leninist” states are either capitalist (China and Vietnam) or in transition to capitalism (Laos, Cuba and North Korea).xxx As a result, Pannekoek’s critique of Leninism still has merit, as it demonstrates that Leninism is a counter-revolutionary politics that results in another form of capitalism that a revolutionary socialist politics today must transcend.

Anton Pannekoek’s third contribution to reconstructing socialist politics shifts to the economic realm through his critique of trade unions.xxxi Grounded in his experience participating in unions, Pannekoek argued that trade unions were formed by workers engaged in class struggle to improve their material conditions through such demands as increasing wages, lowering work intensity, or reducing the working day through strikes. However, Pannekoek argues that after securing legal and other forms of recognition from the state and employers, the character of trade unions changed. More specifically, Pannekoek argues that trade unions develop bureaucracies with full-time paid staff to negotiate with employers to improve workers conditions. As a result, Pannekoek argues that trade unions become organisations that defend workers conditions but which ultimately support capitalism. It is not in union bureaucrats’ interests to support communism because they would no longer exist under communism. Pannekoek was not anti-union though, as he praises the Industrial Workers of the World/IWW union for their revolutionary industrial unionism and direct action, even though Pannekoek argued that they only struggle in the field of production and cannot overthrow capitalist state power.xxxii Pannekoek’s critique of trade unions helps us recognise that the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions/CTU’s social democratic politics, collaboration with the Labour Party, participation in Fair Pay Agreements and the Future of Work Tripartite Forum do not arise from the wrong union officials being elected or the wrong motions being passed at union conferences, but instead is due to trade unions being mediators of wage labour under capitalism.xxxiii Pannekoek’s critique shows that workers must go beyond reformist trade unionism and engage in revolutionary and anti-capitalist forms of class struggle.xxxiv

Anton Pannekoek’s contributions to reconstructing socialist politics are not confined to critiques. They also include Pannekoek’s conception of class struggle, revolution and workers councils. Rooting his conceptions of these in the above critiques and his experiences within the council communist movement, Pannekoek argued that workers will, through their class struggle with capitalists and the state, recognise the limits of social democracy, Leninism and trade unionism, which they will transcend through their self-organisation. This will happen through workers engaging in wildcat strikes and forming strike committees made up of elected, mandated and recallable delegates to coordinate such strikes.xxxv While this happens, groups of communist workers will organise parties to spread council communist ideology amongst workers, but not to lead them in a form of Leninist vanguardism.xxxvi The practice of participating in strikes will lead to the unification of the working-class. In response, the capitalist state will use the police and military to break these strikes. The workers will respond by expanding strikes into general strikes and fraternising with cops and soldiers to bring them onside. Such general strikes will ultimately intensify into a social revolution, where workers expropriate the means of production and place them under the common ownership and control of the strike committees, which will transform into workers councils that will administer all of society and initiate the transition to a stateless communist society.xxxvii Pannekoek’s conception of revolution helps revolutionary socialists today to go beyond the dead ends of social democracy, Leninism and trade unionism by resuscitating the long-denied socialist position “that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”xxxviii

While Anton Pannekoek can provide many contributions to reconstructing socialism in Aotearoa and beyond, his theory is not without its issues. Pannekoek writes in his critique of the middle class: “Intellectuals, who are wont to reduce the social struggle to the most abstract and simple formulae, are inclined to underrate the tremendous scope of the social transformation before us.” (p. 188) This remark also applies to Pannekoek. This is because Pannekoek’s arguments are grounded in a conception of historical materialism that reduces all social phenomena to being caused ultimately by changes in the mode of production.xxxix The problem with this reductionist position is that, as explained by Marxist Søren Mau in his book Mute Compulsion,xl Marxists have failed to derive the existence of gender, sexuality, race and other non-class relations from an analysis of capitalism’s core structures, so not everything can be explained with reference to the logic of capital. Instead Mau argues for developing theories of gender, sexuality, race etc. and analysing their relationship to capital. While Mau does not do this personally, this task has been done by Marxists and anarchists who have theorised the co-formation approach to intersectionality.xli This approach conceives of society as being made up of social relations such capitalism, the state, cisheteropatriarchy, colonialism and so on, that co-(re)produce each other while also not being reducible to each other.xlii Such an intersectional historical materialist analysis allows us to go beyond Pannekoek’s reductionism, to fully understand society, to more effectively envision a socialist society and to more productively debate what tactics and strategies will create it.xliii

The problems with Pannekoek’s theory flow downstream to his conception of class struggle and revolution. This is because Pannekoek’s predictions about class struggle and revolution did not come true. Instead, when such revolutions happened, whether it was May 1968 in France, the 1968 Prague Spring, the 1974 Carnation Revolution or the 1979 Iranian Revolution, states either repressed them, recuperated them, or both, with state and class society surviving.xliv This happened because, contrary to Pannekoek’s belief that workers would spontaneously unify through participating in class struggle, the development of capitalism has led to the fragmentation of the working-class and the end of the classical workers movement.xlv In addition, intersectional historical materialism shows us that class and class struggle are co-formed with gender, sexuality, race, ability etc. This means that to unify the working-class for social revolution, we must participate in and connect together through prefigurative direct action workplace struggles with struggles against land theft, racism, cisheterosexism, state repression, landlordism, police brutality, incarceration, ableism etc. to transform these struggles into an intersectional class struggle.xlvi The preceding analysis also highlights that Pannekoek’s conception of social revolution reduces it to changing the mode of production, which would lead it to not changing the social relations that co-(re)produce that mode, resulting in state and class society continuing. Therefore, to bring about socialism, the social revolution must be intersectional, that is, simultaneously proletarian, decolonial, feminist, ecological and anti-state.xlvii This would entail the simultaneous abolition of all structures of domination through the expropriation of the means of social reproduction, administration and coercion (not just the means of production) by the workers and the communisation of all of society.xlviii

The economic reductionism in Pannekoek’s conceptions of class struggle and revolution is also present in his conception of workers’ councils. Pannekoek argues for workers in councils to be represented “in their natural groups, according to factories, shops and plants” because as “production is the basis of society”, then “the order of production is at the same time the order of society”. (p. 122) This productivist conception excludes many workers who do not fit this criterion such as the unemployed or workers who engage in reproductive labour (that is done mostly by women).xlix This conception also fails to recognise that the separation of the economic and the political as well as the reduction of social life to (abstract) labour does not exist in every form of human society, but is specific to capitalism.l Applying an intersectional historical materialist lens, the issues with Pannekoek’s conception can be resolved through reconceiving stateless socialism as the dialogically coordinated production of life, where freely associated individuals, through geographical and functional councils, assemblies and associations of all kinds (for politics, production, consumption, social reproduction, land, justice, culture, education, defence, etc.)li democratically use their constitutive power (the capacity to create, abolish and modify social relations) to control all of social life, not just production, so they can freely develop themselves.lii This would bring about total liberation, peace and harmony with the rest of the Earth.liii

So how does this collection of Anton Pannekoek’s writings contribute to reconstructing socialist theory and practice in Aotearoa? I have argued that Pannekoek’s writings demonstrate that social democracy, Leninism and trade unionism must be transcended and that future class struggle must be grounded in self-organisation, wildcat strikes and workers’ councils. However, Pannekoek’s theory, means and ends are limited by his economic reductionism, which I have argued can be transcended by grounding socialist theory, tactics, strategy and vision in intersectional historical materialism.liv Despite these limits, I hope this book encourages more socialists in Aotearoa to engage with council communism. This is because we need to critique our existing ways of organising and create and experiment with new ways of organising that will allow us to build prefigurative working-class counter-power that, when powerful enough, can instigate a dual power situation which resolves into in a social revolution that begins the construction of


ii An article on Pannekoek’s life can be found here:

iii Pannekoek’s political thought is outlined in this book:, while Pannekoek’s astronomical career and it’s connections to his council communism are detailed in this book:

iv;; and





ix The development of Pannekoek’s council communist thought and practice is outlined in this book: For more information on council communism, see: and






xv Fore more information on the resurgence of council communism after the Second World War and its influence on the global New Left, see:;;;;;;;

xvi On the Soviet Union, the Great Recession, contemporary texts on workers councils and contemporary council communist groups, see:;;;;;;;


xviii Anton Pannekoek’s collected works can be found at





xxiii Critical reflections on the electoralist left in Aotearoa and globally include:;;;;;






xxix The history of the Soviet Union’s political economy is massive and which cannot be covered in depth in this review. For further resources, consult:;;;;;;

xxx Texts on the capitalist nature of the contemporary “Marxist-Leninist” countries include:;;;;




xxxiv In recent years there has been a substantial amount of theory and practice by workers globally on how to organise beyond mainstream trade unionism. For further elaboration on this topic, consult:;;;;;







xli See;;



xliv Critical reflections on these council revolutions can be found here:;;


xlvi On prefiguration, sites of struggle and intersectional class struggle, see:;;;;;;;;;;;

xlvii Each aspect is detailed in these articles:;;;;




li The topic of how to conceive of a stateless socialism in the 21st century is massive and cannot be covered in depth here. For further resources, consult:;;;;;, M_Machover_Collective_ Decision_Making_Machover_Collective_ Decision_Making.pdf;;;;;;;;;;;



liv In recent years, there has been a resurgence in attempts to reconnect intersectional feminism with its socialist roots, such as:;;;

lv Space precludes a further elaboration of these arguments, but further resources on them include:;;;;;;;;;;;