World Revolution and Communist Tactics. Anton Pannekoek 1920


In Western Europe, capitalism is in a state of progressive collapse; yet in Russia, despite the terrible difficulties, production is being built up under a new order. The hegemony of communism does not mean that production is completely based on a communist order – this latter is only possible after a relatively lengthy process of development – but that the working class is consciously developing the system of production towards communism. [*5] This development cannot at any point go beyond what the prevailing technical and social foundations permit, and therefore it inevitably manifests transitional forms in which vestiges of the old bourgeois world appear. According to what we have heard of the situation in Russia here in Western Europe, such vestiges do indeed exist there.

Russia is an enormous peasant land; industry there has not developed to the unnatural extent of a ‘workshop’ of the world as it has in Western Europe, making export and expansion a question of life and death, but just sufficiently for the formation of a working class able to take over the government of society as a developed class. Agriculture is the occupation of the popular masses, and modern, large-scale farms are in a minority, although they play a valuable role in the development of communism. It is the small units that make up the majority: not the wretched, exploited little properties of Western Europe, but farms which secure the welfare of the peasants and which the soviet regime is seeking to integrate more and more closely into the system as a whole by means of material assistance in the form of extra equipment and tools and by intensive cultural and specialist education. It is nevertheless natural that this form of enterprise generates a certain spirit of individualism alien to communism, which, among the ‘rich peasants', has become a hostile, resolutely anti-communist frame of mind. The Entente has doubtless speculated on this in its proposals to trade with co-operatives, intending to initiate a bourgeois counter-movement by drawing these strata into bourgeois pursuit of profit. But because fear of feudal reaction binds them to the present regime as their major interest, such efforts must come to nothing, and when Western European imperialism collapses this danger will disappear completely.

Industry is predominantly a centrally organised, exploitation-free system of production; it is the heart of the new order, and the leadership of the state is based on the industrial proletariat. But even this system of production is in a transitional phase; the technical and administrative cadres in the factories and in the state apparatus exercise greater authority than is commensurate with developed communism. The need to increase production quickly and the even more urgent need to create an efficient army to fend off the attacks of reaction made it imperative to make good the lack of reliable leaders in the shortest possible time; the threat of famine and the assaults of the enemy did not permit all resources to be directed towards a more gradual raising of the general level of competence and to the development of all as the basis of a collective communist system. Thus a new bureaucracy inevitably arose from the new leaders and functionaries, absorbing the old bureaucracy into itself. This is at times regarded with some anxiety as a peril to the new order, and it can only be removed by a broad development of the masses. Although the latter is being undertaken with the utmost energy, only the communist surplus by which man ceases to be the slave of his labour will form a lasting foundation for it. Only surplus creates the material conditions for freedom and equality; so long as the struggle against nature and against the forces of capital remains intense, an inordinate degree of specialisation will remain necessary.

It is worth noting that although our analysis predicts that development in Western Europe will take a different direction from that of Russia insofar as we can foresee the course which it will follow as the revolution progresses, both manifest the same politico-economic structure: industry run according to communist principles with workers’ councils forming the element of self-management under the technical direction and political hegemony of a worker-bureaucracy, while agriculture retains an individualistic, petty-bourgeois character in the dominant small and medium-scale sectors. But this coincidence is not so extraordinary for all that, in that this kind of social structure is determined not by previous political history, but by basic technico-economic conditions – the level of development attained by industrial and agricultural technology and the formation of the proletarian masses – which are in both cases the same. [*6] But despite this coincidence, there is a great difference in significance and goal. In Western Europe this politico-economic structure forms a transitional stage at which the bourgeoisie is ultimately able to arrest its decline, whereas in Russia the attempt is consciously being made to pursue development further in a communist direction. In Western Europe, it forms a phase in the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, in Russia a phase in the new economic expansion. With the same external forms, Western Europe is on the downward path of a declining culture, Russia on the rising movement of a new culture.

While the Russian revolution was still young and weak and was looking to an imminent outbreak of revolution in Europe to save it, a different conception of its significance reigned. Russia, it was then maintained, was only an outpost of the revolution where favourable circumstances had enabled the proletariat to seize power so early; but this proletariat was weak and unformed and almost swallowed up in the infinite masses of the peasantry. The proletariat of economically backward Russia could only make temporary advances; as soon as the great masses of the fully-fledged Western European proletariat came to power in the most developed industrial countries, with all their technical and organisational experience and their ancient wealth of culture, then we should see communism flourish to an extent that would make the Russian contribution, welcome as it was, seem weak and inadequate by comparison. The heart and strength of the new communist world lay where capitalism had reached the height of its power, in England, in Germany, in America, and laid the basis for the new mode of production.

This conception takes no account of the difficulties facing the revolution in Western Europe. Where the proletariat only slowly gains firm control and the bourgeoisie is upon occasion able to win back power in part or in whole, nothing can come of economic reconstruction. Capitalist expansion is impossible; every time the bourgeoisie obtains a free hand, it creates new chaos and destroys the bases which could have served for the construction of communist production. Again and again it prevents the consolidation of the new proletarian order by bloody reaction and destruction. This occurred even in Russia: the destruction of industrial installations and mines in the Urals and the Donetz basin by Kolchak and Denikin, as well as the need to deploy the best workers and the greater part of the productive forces against them, was a serious blow to the economy and damaged and delayed communist expansion – and even though the initiation of trade relations with America and the West may considerably favour a new upturn, the greatest, most self-sacrificing effort will be needed on the part of the masses in Russia to achieve complete recovery from this damage. But – and herein lies the difference – the soviet republic has remained intact in Russia as an organised centre of communist power which has already developed tremendous internal stability. In Western Europe there will be just as much destruction and murder, here too the best forces of the proletariat will be wiped out in the course of the struggle, but here we lack an already consolidated, organised soviet state that could serve as a source of strength. The classes are wearing each other out in a devastating civil war, and so long as construction comes to nothing, chaos and misery will continue to rule. This will be the lot of countries where the proletariat does not immediately recognise its task with clear insight and united purpose, that is to say where bourgeois traditions weaken and split the workers, dim their eyes and subdue their hearts. It will take decades to overcome the infectious, paralysing influence of bourgeois culture upon the proletariat in the old capitalist countries. And meanwhile, production lies in ruins and the country degenerates into an economic desert.

At the same time as Western Europe, stagnating economically, painfully struggles with its bourgeois past, in the East, in Russia, the economy is flourishing under a communist order. What used to distinguish the developed capitalist countries from the backward East was the tremendous sophistication of their material and mental means of production – a dense network of railways, factories, ships, and a dense, technically skilled population. But during the collapse of capitalism, in the long civil war, in the period of stagnation when too little is being produced, this heritage is being dissipated, used up or destroyed. The indestructible forces of production, science, technical capabilities, are not tied to these countries; their bearers will find a new homeland in Russia, where trade will also provide a sanctuary for part of Europe’s material and technical riches. Soviet Russia’s trade agreement with Western Europe and America will, if taken seriously and operated with a will, tend to accentuate this contradiction, because it furthers the economic expansion of Russia while delaying collapse in Western Europe, thus giving capitalism a breathing space and paralysing the revolutionary potential of the masses – for how long and to what extent remains to be seen. Politically, this will be expressed in an apparent stabilisation of a bourgeois regime or one of the other types discussed above and in a simultaneous rise to power of opportunist tendencies within communism; by recognising the old methods of struggle and engaging in parliamentary activity and loyal opposition within the old trade unions, the communist parties in Western Europe will acquire a legal status, like social-democracy before them, and in the face of this, the radical, revolutionary current will see itself forced into a minority. However, it is entirely improbable that capitalism will enjoy a real new flowering; the private interests of the capitalists trading with Russia will not defer to the economy as a whole, and for the sake of profit they will ship off essential basic elements of production to Russia; nor can the proletariat again be brought into a state of dependence. Thus the crisis will drag on; lasting improvement is impossible and will continually be arrested; the process of revolution and civil war will be delayed and drawn out, the complete rule of communism and the beginning of new growth put off into the distant future. Meanwhile, in the East, the economy will develop untrammelled in a powerful upsurge, and new paths will be opened up on the basis of the most advanced natural science – which the West is incapable of exploiting – together with the new social science, humanity’s newly won control over its own social forces. And these forces, increased a hundredfold by the new energies flowing from freedom and equality, will make Russia the centre of the new communist world order.

This will not be the first time in world history that the centre of the civilised world has shifted in the transition to a new mode of production or one of its phases. In antiquity, it moved from the Middle East to Southern Europe, in the Middle Ages, from Southern to Western Europe; with the rise of colonial and merchant capital, first Spain, then Holland and England became the leading nation, and with the rise of industry England. The cause of these shifts can in fact be embraced in a general historical principle: where the earlier economic form reached its highest development, the material and mental forces, the politico-juridical institutions which secured its existence and which were necessary for its full development, were so strongly constructed that they offered almost insuperable resistance to the development of new forms. Thus, the institution of slavery inhibited the development of feudalism at the twilight of antiquity; thus, the guild laws applying in the great wealthy cities of medieval times meant that later capitalist manufacturing could only develop in other centres hitherto insignificant; thus in the late eighteenth century, the political order of French absolutism which had fostered industry under Colbert obstructed the introduction of the large-scale industry that made England a manufacturing nation. There even exists a corresponding law in organic nature, a corollary to Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ known as the law of the ‘survival of the unfitted': when a species of animal has become specialised and differentiated into a wealth of forms all perfectly adapted to particular conditions of life in that period – like the Saurians in the Secondary Era – it becomes incapable of evolving into a new species; all the various options for adaptation and development have been lost and cannot be retrieved. The development of a new species proceeds from primitive forms which, because they have remained undifferentiated, have retained all their potential for development, and the old species which is incapable of further adaptation dies out. The phenomenon whereby leadership in economic, political and cultural development continually shifts from one people or nation to another in the course of human history – explained away by bourgeois science with the fantasy of a nation or race having ‘exhausted its life force’ – is a particular incidence of this organic rule.

We now see why it is that the primacy of Western Europe and America – which the bourgeoisie is pleased to attribute to the intellectual and moral superiority of their race – will evaporate, and where we can foresee it shifting to. New countries, where the masses are not poisoned by the fug of a bourgeois ideology, where the beginnings of industrial development have raised the mind from its former slumber and a communist sense of solidarity has awoken, where the raw materials are available to use the most advanced technology inherited from capitalism for a renewal of the traditional forms of production, where oppression elicits the development of the qualities fostered by struggle, but where no over-powerful bourgeoisie can obstruct this process of regeneration – it is such countries that will be the centres of the new communist world. Russia, itself half a continent when taken in conjunction with Siberia, already stands first in line. But these conditions are also present to a greater or lesser extent in other countries of the East, in India, in China. Although there may be other sources of immaturity, these Asian countries must not be overlooked in considering the communist world revolution.

This world revolution is not seen in its full universal significance if considered only from the Western European perspective. Russia not only forms the eastern part of Europe, it is much more the western part of Asia, and not only in a geographical, but also in a politico-economic sense. The old Russia had little in common with Europe: it was the westernmost of those politico-economic structures which Marx termed ‘oriental despotic powers', and which included all the great empires of ancient and modern Asia. Based on the village communism of a largely homogeneous peasantry, there evolved within these an absolute rule by princes and the nobility, which also drew support from relatively small-scale but nevertheless important trade in craft goods. Into this mode of production, which, despite superficial changes of ruler, had gone on reproducing itself in the same way for thousands of years, Western European capital penetrated from all sides, dissolving, fermenting, undermining, exploiting, impoverishing; by trade, by direct subjection and plunder, by exploitation of natural riches, by the construction of railways and factories, by state loans to the princes, by the export of food and raw materials – all of which is encompassed in the term ‘colonial policy'. Whereas India, with its enormous riches, was conquered early, plundered and then proletarianised and industrialised, it was only later, through modern colonial policy, that other countries fell prey to developed capital. Although on the surface Russia had played the role of a great European power since 1700, it too became a colony of European capital; due to direct military contact with Europe it went earlier and more precipitately the way that Persia and China were subsequently to go. Before the last world war 70 per cent of the iron industry, the greater part of the railways, 90 per cent of platinum production and 75 per cent of the naphtha industry were in the hands of European capitalists, and through the enormous national debts of tsarism, the latter also exploited the Russian peasantry past the point of starvation. While the working class in Russia worked under the same conditions as those of Western Europe, with the result that a body of revolutionary marxist views developed, Russia’s entire economic situation nevertheless made it the westernmost of the Asiatic empires.

The Russian revolution is the beginning of the great revolt by Asia against the Western European capital concentrated in England. As a rule, we in Western Europe only consider the effects which it has here, where the advanced theoretical development of the Russian revolutionaries has made them the teachers of the proletariat as it reaches towards communism. But its workings in the East are more important still; and Asian questions therefore influence the policies of the soviet republic almost more than European questions. The call for freedom and for the self-determination of all peoples and for struggle against European capital throughout Asia is going out from Moscow, where delegations from Asiatic tribes are arriving one after another. [*7] The threads lead from the soviet republic of Turan to India and the Moslem countries; in Southern China the revolutionaries have sought to follow the example of government by soviets; the pan-Islamic movement developing in the Middle East under the leadership of Turkey is trying to connect with Russia. This is where the significance of the world struggle between Russia and England as the exponents of two social systems lies; and this struggle cannot therefore end in real peace, despite temporary pauses, for the process of ferment in Asia is continuing. English politicians who look a little further ahead than the petty-bourgeois demagogue Lloyd George clearly see the danger here threatening English domination of the world, and with it the whole of capitalism; they rightly say that Russia is more dangerous than Germany ever was. But they cannot act forcefully, for the beginnings of revolutionary development in the English proletariat do not permit any regime other than one of bourgeois demagogy.

The interests of Asia are in essence the interests of the human race. Eight hundred million people live in Russia, China and India, in the Sibero-Russian plain and the fertile valleys of the Ganges and the Yangtse Kiang, more than half the population of the earth and almost three times as many as in the part of Europe under capitalist domination. And the seeds of revolution have appeared everywhere, besides Russia; on the one hand, powerful strike-movements flaring up where industrial proletarians are huddled together, as in Bombay and Hankow; on the other, nationalist movements under the leadership of the rising national intelligentsia. As far as can be judged from the reticent English press, the world war was a powerful stimulus to national movements, but then suppressed them forcefully, while industry is in such an upsurge that gold is flowing in torrents from America to East Asia. When the wave of economic crisis hits these countries – it seems to have overtaken Japan already – new struggles can be expected. The question may be raised as to whether purely nationalist movements seeking a national capitalist order in Asia should be supported, since they will be hostile to their own proletarian liberation movements; but development will clearly not take this course. It is true that until now the rising intelligentsia has orientated itself in terms of European nationalism and, as the ideologues of the developing indigenous bourgeoisie, advocated a national bourgeois government on Western lines; but this idea is paling with the decline of Europe, and they will doubtless come strongly under the intellectual sway of Russian bolshevism and find in it the means to fuse with the proletarian strike-movements and uprisings. Thus, the national liberation movements of Asia will perhaps adopt a communist world view and a communist programme on the firm material ground of the workers’ and peasants’ class struggle against the barbaric oppression of world capital sooner than external appearances might lead us to believe.

The fact that these peoples are predominantly agrarian need be no more of an obstacle than it was in Russia: communist communities will not consist of tightly-packed huddles of factory towns, for the capitalist division between industrial and agricultural nations will cease to exist; agriculture will have to take up a great deal of space within them. The predominant agricultural character will nevertheless render the revolution more difficult, since the mental disposition is less favourable under such conditions. Doubtless a prolonged period of intellectual and political upheaval will also be necessary in these countries. The difficulties here are different from those in Europe, less of an active than of a passive nature: they lie less in the strength of the resistance than in the slow pace at which activity is awakening, not in overcoming internal chaos, but in developing the unity to drive out the foreign exploiter. We will not go into the particulars of these difficulties here – the religious and national fragmentation of India, the petty-bourgeois character of China. However the political and economic forms continue to develop, the central problem which must first be overcome is to destroy the hegemony of European and American capital.

The hard struggle for the annihilation of capitalism is the common task which the workers of Western Europe and the USA have to accomplish hand-in-hand with the vast populations of Asia. We are at present only at the beginning of this process. When the German revolution takes a decisive turn and connects with Russia, when revolutionary mass struggles break out in England and America, when revolt flares up in India, when communism pushes its frontiers forward to the Rhine and the Indian Ocean, then the world revolution will enter into its next mighty phase. With its vassals in the League of Nations and its American and Japanese allies, the world-ruling English bourgeoisie, assaulted from within and without, its world power threatened by colonial rebellions and wars of liberation, paralysed internally by strikes and civil war, will have to exert all its strength and raise mercenary armies against both enemies. When the English working class, backed up by the rest of the European proletariat, attacks its bourgeoisie, it will fight doubly for communism, clearing the way for communism in England and helping to free Asia. And conversely, it will be able to count on the support of the main communist forces when armed hirelings of the bourgeoisie seek to drown its struggle in blood – for Western Europe and the islands off its coast are only a peninsula projecting from the great Russo-Asian complex of lands. The common struggle against capital will unite the proletarian masses of the whole world. And when finally, at the end of the arduous struggle, the European workers, deeply exhausted, stand in the clear morning light of freedom, they will greet the liberated peoples of Asia in the East and shake hands in Moscow, the capital of the new humanity.


[*5] This conception of the gradual transformation of the mode of production stands in sharp contrast to the social-democratic conception, which seeks to abolish capitalism and exploitation gradually by a slow process of reform. The direct abolition of all profit on capital and of all exploitation by the victorious proletariat is the precondition of the mode of production being able to move towards communism.

[*6] A prominent example of this kind of convergent development is to be found in the social structure at the end of ancient times and the beginning of the Middle Ages; cf. Engels, Origins of the Family, Ch. 8.

[*7] This is the basis of the stand taken by Lenin in 1916 at the time of Zimmerwald against Radek, who was representing the view of Western European communists. The latter insisted that the slogan of the right of all peoples to self-determination, which the social patriots had taken up along with Wilson, was merely a deception, since this right can only ever be an appearance and illusion under imperialism, and that we should therefore oppose this slogan. Lenin saw in this standpoint the tendency of Western European socialists to reject the Asiatic peoples’ wars of national liberation, thus avoiding radical struggle against the colonial policies of their governments.