The Second International Cul-de-sac

Going back to Anton Pannekoek and Raya Dunayevskaya’s ideas on organisation, Rad Shiba argues that we need to see beyond the perspectives of the Second International.

29 July 2020

In many ways 20th century Marxism was theoretically and practically defined by its quest to make sense of, and relate itself to, the experience of the Soviet Union. For some, understanding this experience was easy, as they found the Soviet party line perfectly digestible. Their only role, then, was to defend and articulate that line when they were called on to do so.

There were many other responses, however, some more critical and genuinely Marxist in their content. Of these responses, few distinguished themselves more than that of the council communist tradition, as first articulated by Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter among others. This tradition, continued and popularized by figures such as Paul Mattick, came to dominate anti-Leninist Marxist currents for the whole of the century, and even today survives as a dominant influence on the now quite popular communization tendency.

Interestingly, however, council communism was not originally developed in opposition to the Soviet Union and its supposed Bolshevik philosophy, but rather grew alongside Bolshevism in response to the opportunism and eventual degeneration of the Second International, the largest international grouping of Marxists until the Soviet Union itself was founded and birthed the Third International to replace it.

In spite of this, the council communist tradition has in many important respects failed to go beyond the Marxism of the Second International. Despite its more ‘libertarian’ inclinations, council communism does not carry with it the philosophic legacy necessary to work out liberatory politics anew, leading its proponents to often admirably but impotently fight back against the nonsense of Stalinism.

Origins in the Second International

At one point in time, Pannekoek was a stalwart defender of the Second International line on Marxism, going so far as to refer to its leading theoretician, Karl Kautsky, approvingly as ‘the master.’ Most revealingly, in 1905 he wrote to Kautsky himself that his writing ‘so greatly fills me with new thoughts, deep insights, and excellent instruction that I am unable to spot any possible faults.’ There’s no doubt that Pannekoek was flattering Kautsky, but there’s no reason to believe this flattery was insincere. Pannekoek was, at this point, an avowed and devout student of Kautsky’s Marxism.

Between 1907 and 1909, however, this changed, as the Dutch left of which he was a part began to question Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism. It was, they charged, hopelessly beholden to electoral politics and the bourgeois states, far more interested in working on behalf of the working class than with it. Time has shown the Dutch Marxists to be correct in their assessment, and in 1918 Lenin would set down a similar line of criticism, positively citing the Dutch Marxists and crediting them for seeing early what he could not. 

Pannekoek was an active participant in these discussions and carried out an extended correspondence with Kautsky debating the role of the state in capitalist society and how Marxists ought to orient themselves in regards to it. He writes, perhaps most directly, ‘the proletarian battle is not just a battle against the bourgeoisie for state power, it is also a battle against state power.’

Pannekoek did not understand his debate to be with just Kautsky, but the whole ‘Kautsky tradition,’ by which he meant the dominant school of thought in the Second International. Pannekoek’s break with orthodox Marxism would only become more pronounced and explicit as time went on, accusing it of seeking ‘above all else to preserve the state and bend it to socialist perspectives,’ rather than ‘smash’ it as Marx suggested.

The Russian Revolution

When Lenin and the Bolsheviks, then, also took up the line of reasoning that the state ought to be ‘smashed,’ Pannekoek and Lenin found themselves united rather than at odds. In its early years, Pannekoek was excited for the prospects in Russia and spoke out valiantly in defense of the Russian revolutionaries. Pannekoek, perceptively, identified the unique development of the October revolution to be that of the workers’ councils.

What has never occurred in earlier revolutions in Western Europe – where fragmentation and powerlessness always followed political action – has become an enduring reality in Russia: the revolutionary masses are forming a powerful organization. As in 1905, the delegates of factories and revolutionary regimes are building in the form of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, a people’s representation which speaks out vigorously against bourgeois governments and exploiters.[i]

The Workers’ Councils and Marxist Organization

Over time, Pannekoek would grow deeply critical of the Russian revolution and those who helmed it, but his admiration for the workers’ councils only deepened. It was the experiences in Russia, both in 1905 and 1917, that formed the basis for Pannekoek’s council communism. The key concept that he developed from his reflections on these revolutions was that of the ‘proletariat as force.’ By this, Pannekoek meant that:

Organization is the chief principle in the working class fight for emancipation. Hence the forms of this organization constitute the most important problem in the practice of the working class movement. It is clear that these forms depend on the conditions of society and the aims of the fight. They cannot be the invention of theory, but have to be built up spontaneously by the working class itself, guided by its immediate necessities.[ii]

This calls into question the role of the traditional political parties that had defined Marxist organizational tactics in the era of the Second International, not to mention Lenin’s vanguard party. Addressing this, Pannekoek wrote in Five Thesis on the Fight of the Working Class about Capitalism:

[To] spread insight and knowledge, to study, discuss and formulate social ideas, and by their propaganda to enlighten the minds of the masses. The workers’ councils are the organs for practical action and fight for the working class; to the parties fall the task of the building up of its spiritual power. Their work forms an indispensable part in the self-liberation of the working class.[iii]

In this thesis, Pannekoek also reveals his conception of the working-class, and it is in this conception where we can see the shackles of the Second International holding strongest. Pannekoek here holds onto and reflects in his understanding of organization the separation between mental and manual labor that typifies labor in capitalist society. Pannekoek’s understanding of the ‘proletariat as force’ precludes understanding their movement as reason. Despite his authentic appreciation for and devotion to democratic ideals, this democratic impulse did not extend to the realm of theory.

The contradictions between the proletariat’s spiritual immaturity, as evidenced by the strength of bourgeois traditions within it, and the rapid collapse of the capitalist economy can be resolved only through the process of revolutionary development. … the spiritual maturity required to win power and freedom is inconceivable within the framework of a flourishing capitalism. …this problem is one of developing the preconditions within the proletariat for a permanent class power.[iv]

Pannekoek would return to such notions in 1928, writing that ‘The power of the bourgeoisie stems essentially from the immaturity, the fears, the illusions of the proletariat, from the lack of proletarian class consciousness, clear vision of purposes, unity and cohesion.’ One can’t help but be reminded of George Lukacs’s writings on proletarian class consciousness, which is ironic considering how opposed Lukacs’ Leninist loyalties and Pannekoek’s council-communism were. For each theorist, the impotence of the working-class was fundamentally the result of misconceptions.

Where Lukacs created his now famous theory of reification to explain this mystification, Pannekoek was happy to rely on the traditional Marxist theory of ideology. In both cases, however, the implications of this fact were the same. The goal of Marxists was to clear up the mental fog preventing the working-class from recognizing their power and the truth of the communist vision. The development of Marxism, then, was something quite safe and separate from intellectual involvement by the working-class itself, since their relationship to Marxism was merely that of a student to a teacher.

For those familiar, one cannot help but be reminded by Marx’s critique of Wilhelm Weitling, arguing that his socialism assumed ‘on the one side an inspired prophet and on the other only gaping asses.’

This understanding also led to Pannekoek to mischaracterize the workers’ councils in Russia. Even as he was perceptive enough to recognize their unique qualities, he made the mistake of universalizing them. They were not, for Pannekoek, a creative organizational form invented by the working-class to serve its needs in one historic moment and situation, but were instead revealed to be the form of working-class organization, something he assumed to hold true equally in all situations. The working-class had, then, less ‘created’ the workers’ councils and more ‘discovered’ them.

Pannekoek’s interest in workers’ councils was also skewed, as he understood them predominantly in terms of tactics. The question of working-class self-activity was secondary, important only insofar as strategy was concerned. It is for this reason that so many of his works bear the word ‘tactics’ so prominently in their titles. Revolution, too, was conceived along these lines.

Party/Spontaneity or Party/Dialectics of Thought

In 1987, while working on her forever unfinished book on the relationship between revolutionary organization and philosophy, Raya Dunayevskaya came across a 1953 letter by Pannekoek. In it, Pannekoek lays out what he believes to be the organizational responsibility of Marxists. He writes that although ‘our task’ is ‘essentially theoretical: to find and indicate, through study and discussion, the best part of action for the working class,’ this ‘should not be intended solely for members of a group or party, but the masses of the working class.’ Perhaps nowhere else are the strengths and limits of Pannekoek’s thought put so clearly on display.

Pannekoek is quite adamant that the conclusions of Marxist debate be made public; that, ultimately, the job of Marxists was to develop theory so that it may be handed to the working-class. The working-class, he said, ‘must be enlightened by well-considered advice.’ There was to be no lying to or manipulation of the working-class, they must receive our honest opinion at all points and we must work hard to ensure that opinion has been well thought out. That thought process, however, remained solely the task of Marxists.

Dunayevskaya wrote insightfully that, ultimately, Pannekoek’s letter expressed the fundamental thought of all anti-vanguardist forms of Marxism. ‘It is extremely important to consider it the ground of all other tendencies, be it various anti-Leninist groups like Mattick’s or even those within Marxist-Humanism,’ who ‘act as if the absolute opposites are party/spontaneity rather than party/dialectics of thought.’ The problem with councilist organisation theory was that ‘both party and mass are forms of organization sans philosophy, and we want organization inseparable from philosophy.’

Dunayevskaya’s point was not that vanguardism was correct, rather, it was to draw attention to the fact that, ultimately, vanguardists and anti-vanguardists pivot along the same basic philosophical lines. The agency of the working-class, when it does appear, does so only through the backdoor. It is not, as it was for Marx, the pivot on which their philosophy spins. While vanguardists and anti-vanguardists do differ in how they choose to deal with it, they both conceive of the working-class in, essentially, the same, anti-Marxist terms.

Dunayevskaya’s own organization, the News & Letters Committees, was organized differently from the vanguardists or the councilists, not merely for tactical or principled reasons, but on philosophic grounds. In her 1958 book and party document Marxism & Freedom, she writes: So rich are the traditions of America, so uninhibited are the American workers by the preconceived notions of leaders, including those from their own labor ranks, that a New Humanism is evolving. They have no Labor Party to ‘lead’ them or mislead them – and they have no awe of intellectuals like the French Existentialists. That does not mean they reject theory. On the contrary. There is a movement from practice to theory that is literally begging for a movement from theory to practice to meet it. When these two finally do meet – and I have no doubt of their meeting – it cannot be anything short of a New Humanism.

In 2020, we can look back and see that perhaps Dunayevskaya was overly optimistic. The meeting she was so certain was on the horizon never materialized; by and large, Marxists failed to put forth the effort to facilitate it. So content were Marxists with either limiting themselves to endless sect-work or theoretically bankrupt mass parties that entire generations labored away while forging no connection to the labouring people. We cannot let ourselves be doomed to such a pathetic fate.

As clearly as we can see the failures of the past, we ought to see equally clearly how often we squander the opportunities we’re presented in the present. The vast majority of Marxist parties have been working hard to elect Bernie Sanders, their own candidates, or to plead with the working-class to give up electoral politics altogether. Virtually without exception, Marxists to this day close themselves off from recognizing and working with the theoretical and organizational insights of the working-class itself. We’re walking down the very same path that led our ancestors nowhere.

Kicked off by the Minneapolis riots, we are now seeing the largest political mass movement in American history. Despite its size, the media has already moved on, letting protesters hold their signs in the dark. With no organizational or philosophical coherence, these protesters have in many ways allowed the police to become their organizers, letting the cops set the limits on their movement. Where Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent protests were illegal and disruptive, without exception today ‘non-violence’ means compliance. It’s tantamount to begging the police not to kill us.

Without a movement from theory coming to meet it, the movement from practice dead-ends. ‘What have the various forms of spontaneity – councils, soviets, committees, associations, communes – achieved? And why when they did come close to power, it wasn’t the political organizations that didn’t take them over so much, as that they themselves looked to be taken over?’ Mass movements lacking organizational coherence wither and allow themselves to be hijacked by the powers that be, while Marxists who close themselves off from the theoretical and organizational insights of the working class have no capacity to help construct that organizational coherence.

The working-class cannot do this alone, but neither can Marxists expect to single-handedly reveal the truth to the working-class; for them to simply meet us when they’re ready. This is a lesson we must learn; else we doom ourselves to be another example of failure for the next generation of revolutionaries.

Rad Shiba makes YouTube videos on capitalism, Marx, and ideas of the way forward.

[i] Anton Pannekoek, the Russian Revolution, 1918 [ii] Anton Pannekoek, General Remarks on the Question of Organization, 1938 [iii] Anton Pannekoek, Five Thesis on the Fight of the Working Class about Capitalism, 1947 [iv] Anton Pannekoek, Worker Revolution and Communist Tactics, 1920

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