Open Letter

Anton Pannekoek, Dutch Astronomer and Council Communist,1873-1960

The past decade and a half has witnessed a resurgence of interest in a generation of non-orthodox Marxist thinkers who came to political maturity in the years immediately preceding and following the Bolshevik Revolution, and whose theories grew out of the collapse of the Second International, the degeneration of Marxism into a mechanistic doctrine of economic determinism, and the failure of the revolutionary wave which swept Europe in 1917-1920. While considerable attention has been given to thinkers such as Gramsci, Lukacs, Korsch, and Luxemburg, the Dutch Marxist Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960) has received only minimal attention.


Anton Pannekoek and the Quest For an Emancipatory Socialism
John Gerber
Reprinted From New Politics #5 (Summer 1988)

Moreover, much of the attention devoted to Pannekoek has often been marred by its partisan character. Yet despite this comparative neglect, Pannekoek's theoretical work represents one of the most consistent and sustained attempts to develop Marxism as the theory and practice of the revolutionary self-emancipation of the working class. He remains an interesting and original thinker who managed to raise, if not resolve, an impressive array of questions both about Marxism as a method of social emancipation, and about the larger issues of domination and subordination in advanced industrial society. The recurring tendency of Marxism to transform itself into statist and authoritarian systems of varying types makes a critical appraisal of Pannekoek's nearly six-decade-long attempt to develop an authentically emancipatory socialism seem particularly compelling.

Much more than a purely Dutch figure, Pannekoek was a revolutionary intellectual with a transnational vocation. An astronomer of international renown, Pannekoek was active in the left wing of Dutch and German social democracy in the years before 1914. Along with Rosa Luxemburg, he emerged as one of the main leaders of the German anti-revisionist left and developed a powerful critique of social democratic orthodoxy. Following the outbreak of the First World War, he was among the first to call for the formation of a new International and later became a prominent figure in the Zimmerwaid anti-war movement. Although he had played a pivotal role in the formation of European communism, and was a leader of the Comintern's Western European Bureau, Pannekoek was among the first to break with authoritarian communism. As the pre-eminent theorist of the "left" communist Communist Workers' Party of Germany (KAPD), Pannekoek articulated an alternative West European conception of communism and a forceful critique of Leninism which earned him Lenin's lasting hostility in "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder. From the early 1920s to his death in 1960, he remained active as the leading theoretician of the quasi-syndicalist council communist movement.



As a recognized Marxist theorist, Pannekoek was one of the founders of the council communist tendency and a main figure in the radical left in the Netherlands and Germany.

He was best known for his writing on workers' councils. He regarded these as a new form of organisation capable of overcoming the limitations of the old organs of the labour movement, the trade unions and social democratic parties. Basing his theory on what he regarded as the practical lessons of the Russian revolution, Pannekoek argued that the workers' revolution and the transition from capitalism to communism had to be achieved by the workers themselves, democratically organised in workers' councils.

He was a sharp critic of Lenin and Leninism. His analysis of the failure of the Russian revolution was that after Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power, they crippled the soviets. Instead of workers' councils, the Bolsheviks had instituted the rule of their party, which in Pannekoek's view is what led to the institution of the Bolsheviks as a new ruling class. He put his views forward in his 1938 book, Lenin as Philosopher.



An essay by Paul Mattick published in 1960 (Excerpts)

Anton Pannekoek's life span coincided with what was almost the whole history of the modern labour movement; he experienced its rise as a movement of social protest, its transformation into a movement of social reform, and its eclipse as an independent class movement in the contemporary world. But Pannekoek also experienced its revolutionary potentialities in the spontaneous upheavals which, from time to time, interrupted the even flow of social evolution. He entered the labour movement a Marxist and he died a Marxist, still convinced that if there is a future, it will be a socialist future.

As have many prominent Dutch socialists, Pannekoek came from the middle class and his interest in socialism, as he once remarked, was due to a scientific bent strong enough to embrace both society and nature. To him, Marxism was the extension of science to social problems, and the humanisation of society. His great interest in social science was entirely compatible with his interest in natural science; he became not only one of the leading theoreticians of the radical labour movement but also an astronomer and mathematician of world renown...

The First World War brought Pannekoek back to Holland. Prior to the war, together with Radek, Paul Frohlich and Johann Knief, he had been active in Bremen. The Bremen group of left-radicals, the International Communists, later amalgamated with the Spartakus Bund, thus laying the foundation for the Communist Party of Germany. Anti-war groups in Germany found their leaders in Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring; anti-war sentiment in Holland centred around Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek, and Henrietta Roland-Holst. In Zimmerwald and Kienthal these groups joined Lenin and his followers in condemning the imperialist war and advocating proletarian actions for either peace or revolution. The Russian Revolution of 1917, hailed as a possible beginning of a world-revolutionary movement, was supported by both Dutch and German radicals despite previous basic differences between them and the Leninists.

While still in prison, Rosa Luxemburg expressed misgivings about the authoritarian tendencies of bolshevism. She feared for the socialist content of the Russian Revolution unless it should find a rectifying support in a proletarian revolution in the West. Her position of critical support towards the bolshevik regime was shared by Gorter and Pannekoek. They worked nevertheless in the new Communist Party and towards the establishment of a new International. In their views, however, this International was to be new not only in name but also in outlook, and with regard to both the socialist goal and the way to reach it. The social-democratic concept of socialism is state socialism, to be won by way of democratic-parliamentary procedures. Universal suffrage and trade unionism were the instruments to accomplish a peaceful transition from capital ism to socialism. Lenin and the bolsheviks did not believe in a peaceful transformation and advocated the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. But their concept of socialism was still that of social-democracy, and instrumentalities to this end still included parliamentarism and trade unionism.

However, Czarism was not overthrown by democratic processes and trade union activities. The Organisation of the Revolution was that of spontaneously-evolving soviets, of workers' and soldiers' councils, which soon gave way, however, to the bolshevik dictatorship. Just as Lenin was ready to make use of the soviet movement, so was he ready to utilise any other form of activity, including parliamentarism and trade unionism, to gain his end - dictatorial power for his party camouflaged as the "dictatorship of the proletariat," Having reached his goal in Russia, he tried to consolidate his regime with the help of revolutionary movements in Western Europe and, should this fail, by trying to gain sufficient influence in the Western labour movement to secure at least its indirect support. Because of the immediate needs of the bolshevik regime, as well as the political ideas of its leaders, the Communist International was not the beginning of a new labour movement but merely an attempt to gain control of the old movement and use it to secure the bolshevik regime in Russia.

The social patriotism of the Western labour organisations and their policy of class collaboration during the war convinced the revolutionary workers of Western Europe that these organisations could not be used for revolutionary purposes. They had become institutions bound to the capitalist system and had to be destroyed together with capitalism. However unavoidable and necessary for the early development of socialism and the struggle for immediate needs, parliamentarism and trade unionism were no longer instruments of class struggle. When they did enter the basic social conflict, it was on the side of capital. For Pannekoek this was not a question of bad leadership, to be solved by a better one, but of changed social conditions wherein parliamentarism and trade unionism played no longer an emancipatory role. The capitalist crisis in the wake of the war posed the question of revolution and the old labour movement could not be turned into a revolutionary force since socialism has no room for trade unions or formal bourgeois democracy.

Wherever, during the war, workers fought for immediate demands they had to do so against the trade unions, as in the mass-strikes in Holland, Germany, Austria and Scotland. They organised their activities by way of shop committees, shop stewards or workers' councils, independently of existing trade unions. In every truly revolutionary situation, in Russia in 1905 and again in 1917, as well as in the Germany and Austria of 1918, workers' and soldiers' councils (soviets) arose spontaneously and attempted to organise economic and political life by extending the council system on a national scale. The rule of workers' councils is the dictatorship of the proletariat, for the councils are elected at the point of production, thus leaving unrepresented all social layers not associated with production. In itself, this may not lead to socialism, and, in fact, the German workers' councils voted themselves out of existence by supporting the National Assembly. Yet, proletarian self-determination requires a social organisation which leaves the decision-making power over production and distribution in the hands of the workers.

In this council movement, Pannekoek recognised the beginnings of a new revolutionary labour movement which, at the same time, was the beginning of a socialist reorganisation of society. This movement could arise and maintain itself only in opposition to the old labour movement. Its principles attracted the most militant sector of the rebellious proletariat, much to the chagrin of Lenin who could not conceive of a movement not under the control of a party, or the state, and who was busy emasculating the soviets in Russia. But neither could he agree to an international communist movement not under the absolute control of his own party. At first by way of intrigue, and then openly, after 1920, the bolsheviks tried to get the communist movement away from its anti-parliamentary and anti-trade union course, under the pretext that it was necessary not to lose contact with the masses which still adhered to the old organisations. Lenin's "Left-Wing" Communism : An Infantile Disorder was directed first of all against Gorter and Pannekoek, the spokesmen of the communist council movement.

The Heidelberg Convention in 1919 split the German Communist Party into a Leninist minority and a majority adhering to the principles of anti-parliamentarism and anti-trade unionism on which the party had originally been based. But there was now a new dividing question, namely, that of party or class dictatorship. The non-Leninist communists adopted the name, Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD), and a similar organisation was later founded in Holland. Party communists opposed council communists and Pannekoek sided with the latter. The council communists attended the Second Congress of the Third International in the capacity of sympathisers. The conditions of admission to the International - complete subordination of the various national organisations to the will of the Russian Party - divorced the new council movement from the Communist International altogether.

The activities of the Communist International against the "ultra left" were the first direct Russian interventions in the life of communist organisations in other countries. The pattern of control never changed and subordinated, eventually, the whole world communist movement to the specific needs of Russia and the bolshevik state. Although the Russian dominated movement, as Pannekoek and Gorter had predicted, never "captured" the Western trade unions, nor dominated the old socialist organisations by divorcing their followers from their leaders, they did destroy the independence and radical character of the emerging new communist labour movement. With the enormous prestige of a successful political revolution on their side, and with the failure of the German revolution, they could not fail to win a large majority in the communist movement to the principles of Leninism. The ideas and the movement of council communism declined steadily and practically disappeared altogether in the fascist reign of terror and the Second World War.


Anton Pannekoek
wrote this book while living under Nazi occupation in Holland during Wor
ld War Two

Edition of 2003 published by AK
Press Edition: Edinburgh - London - Oakland

(Note: This English translation does not always convey the push and pull of Pannekoek's words and sentences, reflecting his hopeful but unsentimental view of continuing class conflict. In several places it seems archaic or even ungrammatical. I have made a few slight changes but readers can consult the Dutch original and several translations in other languages.--S.T.)

From an interview with Noam Chomsky published as an introduction to this book: "Pannekoek of course was a well known astronomer... Those ideas come straight out of the Enlightenment, actually, notably Rousseau, Humboldt, and back even further. It gets picked up in the left-Marxist traditions, and the independent working class traditions, which have separate roots. They go in parallel, and they have been suppressed in parallel, but they can re-emerge and interact with one another."


"Power over production means power over politics, because politics is one of the basic means to secure power over production. Politics in America was always different from politics in Europe, because here there was no feudal class to beat down... Thus politics was business, a field for pursuit of personal interests like any other field of activity. Only in later years, when the working class awoke and began to talk of socialism, as its counterpart came some talk of public interests of society, and the first trace of reform politics.

"The result, accepted as inevitable, was that politics often is graft. In their first rise the monopolists had no other means than direct bribing. Often the word is quoted spoke by John D. Rockefeller, that everybody can be bought if you only know his price. A continuous fight existed on the part of the smaller capitalists, of competitors, and of spokesmen of public honesty, before the courts in the legislative bodies tried in vain either to punish or to redress fraud, or to so much as disclose truth. It was on such occasion that a senator friend of the accused millionaire exclaimed: 'We ought to pass a law that no man worth a hundred million dollars should be tried for a crime.' Indeed, the masters of capital stand above law; why, then, maintain the troublesome appearance that they are equal citizens, subject to law?

"When the power of big business becomes more firmly rooted and unassailable, these coarse methods gradually become superfluous. Now it had a large attendance of friends, of clients and agents, of dependent proxies, all men of standing, put into well-paid honorable offices, influential in politics as in all public life. They are or they influence the party leaders, they form the caucuses, they manage everything behind the scenes at the party congresses and select congress members, senators and candidates for the presidency. The hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary for the noisy election campaigns are paid by big business; each of the big interests has one of the two great contending parties as its agent, and some of the largest even pay both. To fight this 'corruption,' or at least to expose it by publicity their adversaries succeeded in enacting that each party had to give public account of its finances, thus to show the sources of its funds. It was a blow in the air: it created no sensation and not even surprise: it appeared that public opinion was entirely prepared to accept the domination of politics by big business as a self-evident fact of common knowledge...

"The working class in America will have to wage against world capitalism the most difficult, and at the same time the decisive fight for their and the world's freedom."



"At the end of the first world war world revolution seemed near; the working class arose full of hope and expectation that now its old dreams would come true. But they were dreams of imperfect freedom, they could not be realized. Now at the end of the second world war only slavery and destruction seem near; hope is far distant; but a task, the great aim of real freedom looms. More powerful than before, capitalism rises as master of the world. More powerful than before, the working class likewise must to rise in its fight for mastery over the world. More powerful forms of suppression are in turn discovered by capitalism. So this crisis of capitalism will at one and the same time be the start of a new workers' movement.

"A century ago, when the workers were a small class of downtrodden helpless individuals, the call was heard: Proletarians of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains-- you have a world to win! Since then they have become the largest class; and they have united; but only imperfectly. Only in groups, smaller or larger, not yet as one class-unity. Only superficially, in outer forms, not yet in deep essence. And still they have nothing to lose but their chains; what else they have they cannot lose by fighting, only by timidly submitting. And the world to be won begins to be perceived dimly. At that time no clear goal, for which to unite, could have been depicted; so their organizations in the end became tools of capitalism. Now the goal becomes distinct; opposite and against the stronger domination by state-directed planned economies of the new capitalism stands what Marx called the free association of free and equal producers. So the call for unity must be supplemented by indication of the goal:

"Take the factories and machines; assert your mastery over the productive apparatus; organize production by means of workers' councils."