World Revolution and Communist Tactics. Anton Pannekoek 1920


The transition from capitalism to communism will not proceed according to a simple schema of conquering political power, introducing the council system and then abolishing private commerce, even though this represents the broad outline of development. That would only be possible if one could undertake reconstruction in some sort of void. But out of capitalism there have grown forms of production and organisation which have firm roots in the consciousness of the masses, and which can themselves only be overthrown in a process of political and economic revolution. We have already mentioned the agrarian forms of production, which will have to follow a particular course of development. There have grown up in the working class under capitalism forms of organisation, different in detail from country to country, which represent a powerful force, which cannot immediately be abolished and which will thus play an important role in the course of the revolution.

This applies in the first instance to political parties. The role of social democracy in the present crisis of capitalism is sufficiently well known, but in Central Europe it has practically played itself out. Even its most radical sections, such as the USP in Germany, exercise a harmful influence, not only by splitting the proletariat, but above all by confusing the masses and restraining them from action with their social-democratic notions of political leaders directing the fate of the people by their deeds and dealings. And if the Communist Party constitutes itself into a parliamentary party which, instead of attempting to assert the dictatorship of the class, attempts to establish that of the party – that is to say the party leadership – then it too may become a hindrance to development. The attitude of the Communist Party of Germany during the revolutionary March movement, when it announced that the proletariat was not yet ripe for dictatorship and that it would therefore encounter any ‘genuinely socialist government’ that might be formed as a ‘loyal opposition’, in other words restrain the proletariat from waging the fiercest revolutionary struggle against such a government, was itself criticised from many quarters. [*3]

A government of socialist party leaders may arise in the course of the revolution as a transitional form; this will be expressing a temporary balance between the revolutionary and bourgeois forces, and it will tend to freeze and perpetuate the temporary balance between the destruction of the old and the development of the new. It would be something like a more radical version of the Ebert-Haase-Dittmann regime; [9] and its basis shows what can be expected of it: a seeming balance of hostile classes, but under the preponderance of the bourgeoisie, a mixture of parliamentary democracy and a kind of council system for the workers, socialisation subject to the veto of the Entente powers’ imperialism with the profits of capital being maintained, futile attempts to prevent classes clashing violently. It is always the workers who take a beating in such circumstances. Not only can a regime of this sort achieve nothing in terms of reconstruction, it does not even attempt to do so, since its only aim is to halt the revolution in mid-course. Since it attempts both to prevent the further disintegration of capitalism and also the development of the full political power of the proletariat, its effects are directly counter-revolutionary. Communists have no choice but to fight such regimes in the most uncompromising manner.

Just as in Germany the Social-Democratic Party was formerly the leading organisation of the proletariat, so in England the trade-union movement, in the course of almost a century of history, has put down the deepest roots in the working class. Here it has long been the ideal of the younger radical trade-union leaders – Robert Smillie is a typical example – for the working class to govern society by means of the trade-union organisation. Even the revolutionary syndicalists and the spokesmen of the IWW in America, although affiliated to the Third International, imagine the future rule of the proletariat primarily along these lines. Radical trade-unionists see the soviet system not as the purest form of proletarian dictatorship, but rather as a regime of politicians and intellectuals built up on a base of working-class organisations. They see the trade union movement, on the other hand, as the natural organisation of the proletariat, created by the proletariat, which governs itself within it and which will go on to govern the whole of the work-process. Once the old ideal of ‘industrial democracy’ has been realised and the trade union is master in the factory, its collective organ, the trade-union congress, will take over the function of guiding and managing the economy as a whole. It will then be the real ‘parliament of labour’ and replace the old bourgeois parliament of parties. These circles often shrink from a one-sided and ‘unfair’ class dictatorship as an infringement of democracy, however; labour is to rule, but others are not to be without rights. Therefore, in addition to the labour parliament, which governs work, the basis of life, a second house could be elected by universal suffrage to represent the whole nation and exercise its influence on public and cultural matters and questions of general political concern.

This conception of government by the trade unions should not be confused with ‘labourism’, the politics of the ‘Labour Party’, which is currently led by trade-unionists. This latter stands for the penetration of the bourgeois parliament of today by the trade unions, who will build a ‘workers’ party’ on the same footing as other parties with the objective of becoming the party of government in their place. This party is completely bourgeois, and there is little to choose between Henderson and Ebert. It will give the English bourgeoisie the opportunity to continue its old policies on a broader basis as soon as the threat of pressure from below makes this necessary, and hence weaken and confuse the workers by taking their leaders into the government. A government of the workers’ party, something which seemed imminent a year ago when the masses were in so revolutionary a mood, but which the leaders themselves have put back into the distant future by holding the radical current down, would, like the Ebert regime in Germany, have been nothing but government on behalf of the bourgeoisie. But it remains to be seen whether the far-sighted, subtle English bourgeoisie does not trust itself to stultify and suppress the masses more effectively than these working-class bureaucrats.

A genuine trade-union government as conceived by the radicals is as unlike this workers’ party politics, this ‘labourism’, as revolution is unlike reform. Only a real revolution in political relationships – whether violent or in keeping with the old English models – could bring it about; and in the eyes of the broad masses, it would represent the conquest of power by the proletariat. But it is nevertheless quite different from the goal of communism. It is based on the limited ideology which develops in trade-union struggles, where one does not confront world capital as a whole in all its interwoven forms – finance capital, bank capital, agricultural capital, colonial capital – but only its industrial form. It is based on marxist economics, now being eagerly studied in the English working class, which show production to be a mechanism of exploitation, but without the deeper marxist social theory, historical materialism. It recognises that work constitutes the basis of the world and thus wants labour to rule the world; but it does not see that all the abstract spheres of political and intellectual life are determined by the mode of production, and it is therefore disposed to leave them to the bourgeois intelligentsia, provided that the latter recognises the primacy of labour. Such a workers’ regime would in reality be a government of the trade-union bureaucracy complemented by the radical section of the old state bureaucracy, which it would leave in charge of the specialist fields of culture, politics and suchlike on the grounds of their special competence in these matters. It is obvious that its economic programme will not coincide with communist expropriation, but will only go so far as the expropriation of big capital, while the ‘honest’ profits of the smaller entrepreneur, hitherto fleeced and kept in subjection by this big capital, will be spared. It is even open to doubt whether they will take up the standpoint of complete freedom for India, an integral element of the communist programme, on the colonial question, this life-nerve of the ruling class of England.

It cannot be predicted in what manner, to what degree and with what purity a political form of this kind will be realised. The English bourgeoisie has always understood the art of using well-timed concessions to check movement towards revolutionary objectives; how far it is able to continue this tactic in the future will depend primarily on the depth of the economic crisis. If trade-union discipline is eroded from below by uncontrollable industrial revolts and communism simultaneously gains a hold on the masses, then the radical and reformist trade-unionists will agree on a common line; if the struggle goes sharply against the old reformist politics of the leaders, the radical trade-unionists and the communists will go hand in hand.

These tendencies are not confined to England. The trade unions are the most powerful workers’ organisations in every country; as soon as a political clash topples the old state power, it will inevitably fall into the hands of the best organised and most influential force on hand. In Germany in November 1918, the trade-union executives formed the counter-revolutionary guard behind Ebert; and in the recent March crisis, they entered the political arena in an attempt to gain direct influence upon the composition of the government. The only purpose of this support for the Ebert regime was to deceive the proletariat the more subtly with the fraud of a ‘government under the control of the workers’ organisations’. But it shows that the same tendency exists here as in England. And even if the Legiens and Bauers [10] are too tainted by counter-revolution, new radical trade-unionists from the USP tendency will take their place just as last year the Independents under Dissmann won the leadership of the great metalworkers’ federation. If a revolutionary movement overthrows the Ebert regime, this tightly organised force of seven million will doubtless be ready to seize power, in conjunction with the C P or in opposition to it.

A ‘government of the working class’ along these lines by the trade unions cannot be stable; although it may be able to hold its own for a long time during a slow process of economic decline, in an acute revolutionary crisis it will only be able to survive as a tottering transitional phenomenon. Its programme, as we have outlined above, cannot be radical. But a current which will sanction such measures not, like communism, as a temporary transitional form at most to be deliberately utilised for the purpose of building up a communist organisation, but as a definitive programme, must necessarily come into conflict with and antagonism towards the masses. Firstly, because it does not render bourgeois elements completely powerless, but grants them a certain position of power in the bureaucracy and perhaps in parliament, from which they can continue to wage the class struggle. The bourgeoisie will endeavour to consolidate these positions of strength, while the proletariat, because it cannot annihilate the hostile class under these conditions, must attempt to establish a straightforward soviet system as the organ of its dictatorship; in this battle between two mighty opponents, economic reconstruction will be impossible. [*4] And secondly, because a government of trade-union leaders of this kind cannot resolve the problems which society is posing; for the latter can only be resolved through the proletarian masses’ own initiative and activity, fuelled by the self-sacrificing and unbounded enthusiasm which only communism, with all its perspectives of total freedom and supreme intellectual and moral elevation, can command. A current which seeks to abolish material poverty and exploitation, but deliberately confines itself to this goal, which leaves the bourgeois superstructure intact and at the same time holds back from revolutionising the mental outlook and ideology of the proletariat, cannot release these great energies in the masses; and so it will be incapable of resolving the material problems of initiating economic expansion and ending the chaos.

The trade-union regime will attempt to consolidate and stabilise the prevailing level of the revolutionary process, just like the ‘genuinely socialist’ regime – except that it will do so at a much more developed stage, when the primacy of the bourgeoisie has been destroyed and a certain balance of class power has arisen with the proletariat predominant; when the entire profit of capital can no longer be saved, but only its less repellent petty-capitalist form; when it is no longer bourgeois but socialist expansion that is being attempted, albeit with insufficient resources. It thus signifies the last stand of the bourgeois class: when the bourgeoisie can no longer withstand the assault of the masses on the Scheidemann-Henderson-Renaudel line, it falls back to its last line of defence, the Smillie-Dissmann-Merrheim line. [11] When it is no longer able to deceive the proletariat by having ‘workers’ in a bourgeois or socialist regime, it can only attempt to keep the proletariat from its ultimate radical goals by a ‘government of workers’ organisations’ and thus in part retain its privileged position. Such a government is counterrevolutionary in nature, in so far as it seeks to arrest the necessary development of the revolution towards the total destruction of the bourgeois world and prevent total communism from attaining its greatest and clearest objectives. The struggle of the communists may at present often run parallel with that of the radical trade-unionists; but it would be dangerous tactics not to clearly identify the differences of principle and objective when this happens. And these considerations also bear upon the attitude of the communists towards the trade-union confederations of today; everything which consolidates their unity and strength consolidates the force which will one day put itself in the way of the onward march of the revolution.

When communism conducts a strong and principled struggle against this transitional political form, it represents the living revolutionary tendencies in the proletariat. The same revolutionary action on the part of the proletariat which prepares the way for the rule of a worker-bureaucracy by smashing the apparatus of bourgeois power simultaneously drives the masses on to form their own organs, the councils, which immediately undermine the basis of the bureaucratic trade unions’ machinery. The development of the soviet system is at the same time the struggle of the proletariat to replace the incomplete form of its dictatorship by complete dictatorship. But with the intensive labour which all the never-ending attempts to ‘reorganise’ the economy will demand, a leadership bureaucracy will be able to retain great power for a long time, and the masses’ capacity to get rid of it will only develop slowly. These various forms and phases of the process of development do not, moreover, follow on in the abstract, logical succession in which we have set them down as degrees of maturation: they all occur at the same time, become entangled and coexist in a chaos of tendencies that complement each other, combat each other and dissolve each other, and it is through this struggle that the general development of the revolution proceeds. As Marx himself put it:

Proletarian revolutions constantly criticise themselves, continually interrupt themselves in the course of their own development, come back to the seemingly complete in order to start it all over again, treat the inadequacies of their own first attempts with cruelly radical contempt, seem only to throw their adversaries down to enable them to draw new strength from the earth and rise up again to face them all the more gigantic.

The resistances which issue from the proletariat itself as expressions of weakness must be overcome in order for it to develop its full strength; and this process of development is generated by conflict, it proceeds from crisis to crisis, driven on by struggle. In the beginning was the deed, but it was only the beginning. It demands an instant of united purpose to overthrow a ruling class, but only the lasting unity conferred by clear insight can keep a firm grasp upon victory. Otherwise there comes the reverse which is not a return to the old rulers, but a new hegemony in a new form, with new personnel and new illusions. Each new phase of the revolution brings a new layer of as yet unused leaders to the surface as the representatives of particular forms of organisation, and the overthrow of each of these in turn represents a higher stage in the proletariat’s self-emancipation. The strength of the proletariat is not merely the raw power of the single violent act which throws the enemy down, but also the strength of mind which breaks the old mental dependence and thus succeeds in keeping a tight hold on what has been seized by storm. The growth of this strength in the ebb and flow of revolution is the growth of proletarian freedom.


*3. See, for example, the penetrating criticisms of Comrade Koloszvary in the Viennese weekly Kommunismus.

*4. The absence of obvious and intimidating methods of coercion in the hands of the bourgeoisie in England also inspires the pacifist illusion that violent revolution is not necessary there and that peaceful construction from below, as in the Guild movement and the Shop Committees, will take care of everything. It is certainly true that the most potent weapon of the English bourgeoisie has until now been subtle deception rather than armed force; but if put to it, this world-dominating class will not fail to summon up terrible means to enforce its rule.

9. Ebert, Haase and Dittmann were members of the Council of People’s Commissioners given supreme authority by the November revolution. [translators note]

10. Karl Legien was President of the General Commission of Trade Unions from 1890 and of its successor, the ADGB (Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund), from its formation in 1919; Gustav Bauer, another trade-union leader, became Minister of Labour in 1919 and subsequently Chancellor. [translators note]

11. Respectively socialist and trade union leaders. [translators note]