Letter 3: Pannekoek to Castoriadis

Introduction | Letter 1 | Letter 2 | Letter 3 | Original
Now available (8/6/13): Letters 4 and 5

I noticed with great plea­sure that you have pub­lished in your review Social­isme ou Bar­barie a trans­la­tion of my let­ter anno­tat­ed with crit­i­cal remarks in such a way that involves your read­ers in a dis­cus­sion on fun­da­men­tal ques­tions. Since you express the desire to con­tin­ue the dis­cus­sion, I am send­ing you sev­er­al remarks on your response. Nat­u­ral­ly, there are still dif­fer­ences of opin­ion that could appear in the dis­cus­sion with a greater clar­i­ty. Such dif­fer­ences are nor­mal­ly the result of a dif­fer­ent assess­ment of what one con­sid­ers as the most impor­tant points, which in turn is relat­ed to our prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ences or the milieu in which we find our­selves. For me, this was the study of the polit­i­cal strikes in Bel­gium (1893), in Rus­sia (1905 and 1917), and in Ger­many (1918 to 1919), a study by which I attempt­ed to reach a clear under­stand­ing of the fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter of these actions. Your group lives and works among the tur­moil of the work­ing class of a great indus­tri­al city; con­se­quent­ly, your atten­tion is com­plete­ly con­cen­trat­ed on a prac­ti­cal prob­lem: how could the meth­ods of effec­tive strug­gle devel­op beyond the inef­fi­cient strug­gle of par­ties and par­tial strikes of today?

Nat­u­ral­ly, I do not claim that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary actions of the work­ing class will all unfold in an atmos­phere of peace­ful dis­cus­sion. What I claim is that the result of the strug­gle, often vio­lent, is not deter­mined by acci­den­tal cir­cum­stances, but by what is alive in the thoughts of the work­ers, as the basis of a sol­id con­scious­ness acquired by expe­ri­ence, study, or their dis­cus­sions. If the per­son­nel of a fac­to­ry must decide whether or not to go on strike, the deci­sion is not tak­en by smash­ing fists on the table, but nor­mal­ly by dis­cus­sions.

You pose the prob­lem in an entire­ly prac­ti­cal way: what would the par­ty do if it had 45% of the mem­bers of the coun­cils behind it and if it expect­ed anoth­er par­ty (neo-Stal­in­ists that strive to con­quer the regime) to attempt a seizure of pow­er by force? Your response is: we would have to pre­empt it by doing that which we fear it will do. What will be the defin­i­tive result of such an action? Look at what hap­pened in Rus­sia. There exist­ed a par­ty, with good rev­o­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ples, influ­enced by Marx­ism; and assured, more­over, of the sup­port of the coun­cils already formed by the work­ers; how­ev­er, it was oblig­ed to seize pow­er, and the result was total­i­tar­i­an Stal­in­ism (if I say “it was oblig­ed” that means that the cir­cum­stances were not ripe enough for a real pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion. In the west­ern world in which cap­i­tal­ism is more devel­oped, the con­di­tions cer­tain­ly are more ripe; the mea­sure of it is giv­en by the devel­op­ment of the class strug­gle). Thus, one must pose the ques­tion: could the strug­gle of the par­ty that you pro­pose save the pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion? It seems to me that it would be instead one step towards a new oppres­sion.

Cer­tain­ly, there will always be dif­fi­cul­ties. If the French, or glob­al, sit­u­a­tion required a mass strug­gle of the work­ers, the com­mu­nist par­ties would try imme­di­ate­ly to trans­form the action into a pro-Russ­ian demon­stra­tion with­in the bound­aries of the par­ty. We must lead an ener­getic strug­gle against these par­ties. But we can­not beat them by fol­low­ing their meth­ods. That is only pos­si­ble by prac­tic­ing our own meth­ods. The true form of action of a class in strug­gle is the force of argu­ments, based on the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of the auton­o­my of deci­sions! The work­ers can only pre­vent the com­mu­nist party’s repres­sion by the devel­op­ment and rein­force­ment of their own class pow­er; that means their unan­i­mous will to take the means of pro­duc­tion under their con­trol and man­age them.

The prin­ci­pal con­di­tion for the con­quest of free­dom for the work­ing class is that the con­cep­tion of self-gov­ern­ment and self-man­age­ment  of the appa­ra­tus­es of pro­duc­tion is root­ed in the con­scious­ness of the mass­es. That agrees, to a cer­tain degree, with what Jau­rès wrote on the Con­stituent Assem­bly, in his Social­ist His­to­ry of the French Rev­o­lu­tion:

“This assem­bly, brand new, dis­cussing polit­i­cal sub­jects, knew, bare­ly con­vened, to thwart all the maneu­vers of the Court. Why? Because it held sev­er­al grand abstract ideas, seri­ous­ly and lengthi­ly ripened and which gave them a clear view of the sit­u­a­tion.”

Of course, the two cas­es are not iden­ti­cal. Instead of the grand polit­i­cal ideas of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, it is a ques­tion of the grand social­ist ideas of the work­ers, which is to say: the man­age­ment of pro­duc­tion by orga­nized coop­er­a­tion. Instead of 500 deputies armed with their abstract ideas acquired through study, the work­ers will be mil­lions guid­ed by the expe­ri­ence of an entire life of exploita­tion in a pro­duc­tive job. This is why I see these things in the fol­low­ing way:

The most noble and use­ful task of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary par­ty is, by its pro­pa­gan­da in thou­sands of small jour­nals, brochures, etc., to enrich the knowl­edge of the mass­es in the process of a con­scious­ness always more clear and more vast.

Now, sev­er­al words on the char­ac­ter of the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion. Trans­lat­ing the Eng­lish word “mid­dle class rev­o­lu­tion” into “révo­lu­tion bour­geoise” does not exact­ly express its mean­ing. When in Eng­land the so-called mid­dle class­es seized pow­er, they were com­posed of a large par­ty of small cap­i­tal­ists, or busi­ness­men, own­ers of the indus­tri­al appa­ra­tus­es of pro­duc­tion. The strug­gle of the mass­es was nec­es­sary to dri­ve the aris­toc­ra­cy from pow­er; but in spite of this fact, this mass was itself not yet capa­ble of seiz­ing the instru­ments of pro­duc­tion; the work­ers could only achieve the spir­i­tu­al, moral, and orga­ni­za­tion­al capac­i­ty to do that by means of class strug­gle in a suf­fi­cient­ly devel­oped cap­i­tal­ism. In Rus­sia, there did not exist a bour­geoisie of cer­tain impor­tance; the con­se­quence was that the van­guard of the rev­o­lu­tion gave birth to a new “mid­dle class” as rul­ing class of pro­duc­tive work, man­ag­ing the appa­ra­tus of pro­duc­tion, and not as an ensem­ble of indi­vid­ual own­ers each pos­sess­ing a cer­tain part of the appa­ra­tus of pro­duc­tion, but as col­lec­tive own­ers of the appa­ra­tus of pro­duc­tion in its total­i­ty.

In gen­er­al, we could say: if the labor­ing mass­es (because they are the prod­uct of pre-cap­i­tal­ist con­di­tions) are not yet capa­ble of tak­ing pro­duc­tion into their own hands, inevitably that will lead to new lead­ing class becom­ing mas­ter of pro­duc­tion. It is this con­cor­dance that makes me say that the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion (in its essen­tial and per­ma­nent char­ac­ter) was a bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion. Cer­tain­ly the mass pow­er of the pro­le­tari­at was nec­es­sary to destroy the for­mer sys­tem (and it was in this a les­son for the work­ers of the entire world). But a social rev­o­lu­tion can obtain noth­ing more than what cor­re­sponds to the char­ac­ter of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary class­es, and if the great­est rad­i­cal­ism pos­si­ble was nec­es­sary to con­quer all resis­tances, lat­er on, it would have to fall behind.

This appears to be gen­er­al rule of all rev­o­lu­tions up to the present day: up to 1793, the French Rev­o­lu­tion became more and more rad­i­cal, until the peas­ants defin­i­tive­ly became the free mas­ters of the soil, and until the for­eign armies were pushed back; at that moment, the Jacobins were mas­sa­cred and cap­i­tal­ism made its entrance as the new mas­ter. When one sees things this way, the course of the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion would be the same as those pre­ced­ing rev­o­lu­tions that all con­quered pow­er, in Eng­land, in France, in Ger­many. The Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion was not at all a pre­ma­ture pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion. The pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion belongs to the future.

I hope that this expla­na­tion, even though it does not con­tain any new argu­ments, will help to clar­i­fy sev­er­al diver­gences in our points of view.

—Trans­lat­ed by Asad Haider and Salar Mohan­desi

Author of the article

was an astronomer and one of the founding theorists of council communism.