World Revolution and Communist Tactics. Anton Pannekoek 1920


The conception that revolution in Western Europe will take the form of an orderly siege of the fortress of capital which the proletariat, organised by the Communist Party into a disciplined army and using time-proven weapons, will repeatedly assault until the enemy surrenders is a neo-reformist perspective that certainly does not correspond to the conditions of struggle in the old capitalist countries. Here there may occur revolutions and conquests of power that quickly turn into defeat; the bourgeoisie will be able to reassert its domination, but this will result in even greater dislocation of the economy; transitional forms may arise which, because of their inadequacy, only prolong the chaos. Certain conditions must be fulfilled in any society for the social process of production and collective existence to be possible, and these relations acquire the firm hold of spontaneous habits and moral norms – sense of duty, industriousness, discipline: in the first instance, the process of revolution consists in a loosening of these old relations. Their decay is a necessary by-product of the dissolution of capitalism, while the new bonds corresponding to the communist reorganisation of work and society, the development of which we have witnessed in Russia, have yet to grow sufficiently strong. Thus, a transitional period of social and political chaos becomes inevitable. Where the proletariat is able to seize power rapidly and keep a firm hold upon it, as in Russia, the transitional period can be short and can be brought rapidly to a close by positive construction. But in Western Europe, the process of destruction will be much more drawn out. In Germany we see the working class split into groups in which this process has reached different stages, and which therefore cannot yet achieve unity in action. The symptoms of recent revolutionary movements indicate that the entire nation, and indeed, Central Europe as a whole, is dissolving, that the popular masses are fragmenting into separate strata and regions, with each acting on its own account: here the masses manage to arm themselves and more or less gain political power; elsewhere they paralyse the power of the bourgeoisie in strike movements; in a third place they shut themselves off as a peasant republic, and somewhere else they support white guards, or perhaps toss aside the remnants of feudalism in primitive agrarian revolts – the destruction must obviously be thorough-going before we can begin to think of the real construction of communism. It cannot be the task of the Communist Party to act the schoolmaster in this upheaval and make vain attempts to truss it in a straitjacket of traditional forms; its task is to support the forces of the proletarian movement everywhere, to connect the spontaneous actions together, to give them a broad idea of how they are related to one another, and thereby prepare the unification of the disparate actions and thus put itself at the head of the movement as a whole.

The first phase of the dissolution of capitalism is to be seen in those countries of the Entente where its hegemony is as yet unshaken; in an irresistible decline in production and in the value of their currencies, an increase in the frequency of strikes and a strong aversion to work among the proletariat. The second phase, the period of counter-revolution, i.e. the political hegemony of the bourgeoisie in the epoch of revolution, means complete economic collapse; we can study this best in Germany and the remainder of Central Europe. If a communist system had arisen immediately after the political revolution, organised reconstruction could have begun in spite of the Versailles and St Germain peace treaties, in spite of the poverty and the exhaustion. But the Ebert-Noske regime no more thought of organised reconstruction than did Renner and Bauer; [8] they gave the bourgeoisie a free hand, and saw their duty as consisting solely in the suppression of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie, or rather each individual bourgeois, acted in a characteristically bourgeois manner; each of them thought only of making as much profit as possible and of rescuing for his personal use whatever could be saved from the cataclysm. It is true that there was talk in newspapers and manifestoes of the need to rebuild economic life by organised effort, but this was simply for the workers’ consumption, fine phrases to conceal the fact that despite their exhaustion, they were under rigorous compulsion to work in the most intensive conditions possible. In reality, of course, not a single bourgeois concerned himself one jot with the general national interest, but only with his personal gain. At first, trade became the principal means of self-enrichment, as it used to be in the old days; the depreciation of the currency provided the opportunity to export everything that was needed for economic expansion or even for the mere survival of the masses – raw materials, food, finished products, means of production, and after that, factories themselves and property. Racketeering reigned everywhere among the bourgeois strata, supported by unbridled corruption on the part of officialdom. And so all their former possessions and everything that was not to be surrendered as war reparations was packed off abroad by the ‘leaders of production'. Likewise in the domain of production, the private pursuit of profit intervened to wreck economic life by its total indifference towards the common welfare. In order to force piecework and longer working hours upon proletarians or to get rid of rebellious elements among them, they were locked out and the factories set at a standstill, regardless of the stagnation caused throughout the rest of the industry as a consequence. On top of that came the incompetence of the bureaucratic management in the state enterprises, which degenerated into utter vacillation when the powerful hand of the government was missing. Restriction of production, the most primitive method of raising prices and one which competition would render impossible in a healthy capitalist economy, became respectable once more. In the stock-market reports capitalism seems to be flourishing again, but the high dividends are consuming the last remaining property and are themselves being frittered away on luxuries. What we have witnessed in Germany over the last year is not something out of the ordinary, but the functioning of the general class character of the bourgeoisie. Their only aim is, and always has been, personal profit, which in normal capitalism sustains production, but which brings about the total destruction of the economy as capitalism degenerates. And things will go the same way in other countries; once production has been dislocated beyond a certain point and the currency has depreciated sharply, then the complete collapse of the economy will result if the pursuit of private profit by the bourgeoisie is given free reign – and this is what the political hegemony of the bourgeoisie amounts to, whatever non-communist party it may hide behind.

The difficulties of the reconstruction facing the proletariat of Western Europe in these circumstances are far greater than they were in Russia – the subsequent destruction of industrial productive forces by Kolchak and Denikin is a pale shadow by comparison. Reconstruction cannot wait for a new political order to be set up, it must be begun in the very process of revolution by the proletariat taking over the organisation of production and abolishing the bourgeoisie’s control over the material essentials of life wherever the proletariat gains power. Works councils can serve to keep an eye on the use of goods in the factories; but it is clear that this cannot prevent all the anti-social racketeering of the bourgeoisie. To do so, the most resolute utilisation of armed political power is necessary. Where the profiteers recklessly squander the national wealth without heed for the common good, where armed reaction blindly murders and destroys, the proletariat must intervene and fight with no half-measures in order to protect the common good and the life of the people.

The difficulties of reorganising a society that has been completely destroyed are so great that they appear insuperable before the event, and this makes it impossible to set up a programme for reconstruction in advance. But they must be overcome, and the proletariat will overcome them by the infinite self-sacrifice and commitment, the boundless power of soul and spirit and the tremendous psychological and moral energies which the revolution is able to awaken in its weakened and tortured frame.

At this point, a few problems may be touched on in passing. The question of technical cadres in industry will only give temporary difficulties: although their thinking is bourgeois through and through and they are deeply hostile to proletarian rule, they will nevertheless conform in the end. Getting commerce and industry moving will above all be a question of supplying raw materials; and this question coincides with that of food-stuffs. The question of food-supplies is central to the revolution in Western Europe, since the highly industrialised population cannot get by even under capitalism without imports from abroad. For the revolution, however, the question of food-supplies is intimately bound up with the whole agrarian question, and the principles of communist regulation of agriculture must influence measures taken to deal with hunger even during the revolution. Junker estates and large-scale landed property are ripe for expropriation and collective exploitation; the small farmers will be freed from all capitalist oppression and encouraged to adopt methods of intensive cultivation through support and assistance of every kind from the state and co-operative arrangements; medium-scale farmers – who own half the land in Western and South-Western Germany, for example – have a strongly individualistic and hence anti-communist mentality, but their economic position is as yet unassailable: they cannot therefore be expropriated, and will have to be integrated into the sphere of the economic process as a whole through the exchange of products and the development of productivity, for it is only with communism that maximum productivity can be developed in agriculture and the individual enterprise introduced by capitalism transcended. It follows that the workers will see in the landowners a hostile class and in the rural workers and small farmers allies in the revolution, while they have no cause for making enemies of the middle farming strata, even though the latter may be of a hostile disposition towards them. This means that during the first period of chaos preceding the establishment of a system of exchanging products, requisitions must be carried out only as an emergency measure among these strata, as an absolutely unavoidable balancing operation between famine in the towns and in the country. The struggle against hunger will have to be dealt with primarily by imports from abroad. Soviet Russia, with her rich stocks of foodstuffs and raw materials, will thus save and provide for the revolution in Western Europe. The Western European working class thus has the highest and most personal interest in the defence and support of Soviet Russia.

The reconstruction of the economy, inordinately difficult as it will be, is not the main problem for the Communist Party. When the proletarian masses develop their intellectual and moral potential to the full, they will resolve it themselves. The prime duty of the Communist Party is to arouse and foster this potential. It must eradicate all the received ideas which leave the proletariat timid and unsure of itself, set itself against everything that breeds illusions among the workers about easier courses and restrains them from the most radical measures, energetically oppose all the tendencies which stop short at half-measures or compromises. And there are still many such tendencies.


[8] Karl Renner was the leader of the revisionist wing of the Austrian Social Democratic Party; Otto Bauer was Austrian Foreign Secretary from November 1918 to July 1919. [translators note]