World Revolution and Communist Tactics. Anton Pannekoek 1920


Just as parliamentary activity incarnates the leaders’ psychological hold over the working masses, so the trade-union movement incarnates their material authority. Under capitalism, the trade unions form the natural organisations for the regroupment of the proletariat; and Marx emphasised their significance as such from the first. In developed capitalism, and even more in the epoch of imperialism, the trade unions have become enormous confederations which manifest the same developmental tendencies as the bourgeois state in an earlier period. There has grown up within them a class of officials, a bureaucracy, which controls all the organisation’s resources – funds, press, the appointment of officials; often they have even more far-reaching powers, so that they have changed from being the servants of the collectivity to become its masters, and have identified themselves with the organisation. And the trade unions also resemble the state and its bureaucracy in that, democratic forms notwithstanding, the will of the members is unable to prevail against the bureaucracy; every revolt breaks on the carefully constructed apparatus of orders of business and statutes before it can shake the hierarchy. It is only after years of stubborn persistence that an opposition can sometimes register a limited success, and usually this only amounts to a change in personnel. In the last few years, before and since the war, this situation has therefore often given rise to rebellions by the membership in England, Germany and America; they have struck on their own initiative, against the will of the leadership or the decisions of the union itself. That this should seem natural and be taken as such is an expression of the fact that the organisation is not simply a collective organ of the members, but as it were something alien to them; that the workers do not control their union, but that it stands over them as an external force against which they can rebel, although they themselves are the source of its strength – once again like the state itself. If the revolt dies down, the old order is established once again; it knows how to assert itself in spite of the hatred and impotent bitterness of the masses, for it relies upon these masses’ indifference and their lack of clear insight and united, persistent purpose, and is sustained by the inner necessity of trade-union organisation as the only means of finding strength in numbers against capital.

It was by combating capital, combating its tendencies to absolute impoverisation, setting limits to the latter and thus making the existence of the working class possible, that the trade-union movement fulfilled its role in capitalism, and this made it a limb of capitalist society itself. But once the proletariat ceases to be a member of capitalist society and, with the advent of revolution, becomes its destroyer, the trade union enters into conflict with the proletariat.

It becomes legal, an open supporter of the state and recognised by the latter, it makes ‘expansion of the economy before the revolution’ its slogan, in other words, the maintenance of capitalism. In Germany today millions of proletarians, until now intimidated by the terrorism of the ruling class, are streaming into the unions out of a mixture of timidity and incipient militancy. The resemblance of the trade-union confederations, which now embrace almost the entire working class, to the state structure is becoming even closer. The trade-union officials collaborate with the state bureaucracy not only in using their power to hold down the working class on behalf of capital, but also in the fact that their ‘policy’ increasingly amounts to deceiving the masses by demagogic means and securing their consent to the bargains that the unions have made with the capitalists. And even the methods employed vary according to the conditions: rough and brutal in Germany, where the trade-union leaders have landed the workers with piece-work and longer working hours by means of coercion and cunning deception, subtle and refined in England, where the trade-union mandarins, like the government, give the appearance of allowing themselves to be reluctantly pushed on by the workers, while in reality they are sabotaging the latter’s demands.

Marx’ and Lenin’s insistence that the way in which the state is organised precludes its use as an instrument of proletarian revolution, notwithstanding its democratic forms, must therefore also apply to the trade-union organisations. Their counterrevolutionary potential cannot be destroyed or diminished by a change of personnel, by the substitution of radical or ‘revolutionary’ leaders for reactionary ones. It is the form of the organisation that renders the masses all but impotent and prevents them making the trade union an organ of their will. The revolution can only be successful by destroying this organisation, that is to say so completely revolutionising its organisational structure that it becomes something completely different. The soviet system, constructed from within, is not only capable of uprooting and abolishing the state bureaucracy, but the trade-union bureaucracy as well; it will form not only the new political organs to replace parliament, but also the basis of the new trade unions. The idea that a particular organisational form is revolutionary has been held up to scorn in the party disputes in Germany on the grounds that what counts is the revolutionary mentality of the members. But if the most important element of the revolution consists in the masses taking their own affairs – the management of society and production – in hand themselves, then any form of organisation which does not permit control and direction by the masses themselves is counterrevolutionary and harmful; and it should therefore be replaced by another form that is revolutionary in that it enables the workers themselves to determine everything actively. This is not to say that this form is to be set up within a still passive work-force in readiness for the revolutionary feeling of the workers to function within it in time to come: this new form of organisation can itself only be set up in the process of revolution, by workers making a revolutionary intervention. But recognition of the role played by the current form of organisation determines the attitude which the communists have to take with regard to the attempts already being made to weaken or burst this form.

Efforts to keep the bureaucratic apparatus as small as possible and to look to the activity of the masses for effectiveness have been particularly marked in the syndicalist movement, and even more so in the ‘industrial’ union movement. This is why so many communists have spoken out for support of these organisations against the central confederations. So long as capitalism remains intact, however, these new formations cannot take on any comprehensive role – the importance of the American IWW derives from particular circumstances, namely the existence of a numerous, unskilled proletariat largely of foreign extraction outside the old confederations. The Shop Committees movement and Shop Stewards movement in England are much closer to the soviet system, in that they are mass organs formed in opposition to the bureaucracy in the course of struggle. The ‘unions’ in Germany are even more deliberately modelled on the idea of the soviet, but the stagnation of the revolution has left them weak. Every new formation of this type that weakens the central confederations and their inner cohesion removes an impediment to revolution and weakens the counterrevolutionary potential of the trade-union bureaucracy. The notion of keeping all oppositional and revolutionary forces together within the confederations in order for them eventually to take these organisations over as a majority and revolutionise them is certainly tempting. But in the first place, this is a vain hope, as fanciful as the related notion of taking over the Social-Democratic party, because the bureaucracy already knows how to deal with an opposition before it becomes too dangerous. And secondly, revolution does not proceed according to a smooth programme, but elemental outbreaks on the part of passionately active groups always play a particular role within it as a force driving it forward. If the communists were to defend the central confederations against such initiatives out of opportunistic considerations of temporary gain, they would reinforce the inhibitions which will later be their most formidable obstacle.

The formation by the workers of the soviets, their own organs of power and action, in itself signifies the disintegration and dissolution of the state. As a much more recent form of organisation and one created by the proletariat itself, the trade union will survive much longer, because it has its roots in a much more living tradition of personal experience, and once it has shaken off state-democratic illusions, will therefore claim a place in the conceptual world of the proletariat. But since the trade unions have emerged from the proletariat itself, as products of its own creative activity, it is in this field that we shall see the most new formations as continual attempts to adapt to new conditions; following the process of revolution, new forms of struggle and organisation will be built on the model of the soviets in a process of constant transformation and development.