Deviations, Part 1: The Castoriadis-Pannekoek Exchange

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

In early 1953 Cajo Brendel, a Dutch council communist affiliated with a group known as Spartacus, visited the members of Socialisme ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism) in Paris. As members of a militant organization harshly marginalized by the most blistering winters of the cold war, Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, and their comrades understandably hoped to make contact with other communist tendencies critical of the official currents. Delighted to discover that Anton Pannekoek, that veteran communist whose dissenting tracts had drawn the ire of none other than Lenin himself, was quite close to Spartacus, the group decided to supply Brendel with a copy of every issue of the journal, eleven in all, to pass along to the revered theorist. Pannekoek, who read them with excitement, wrote later to Brendel the French group showed much promise despite its questionable position on the party question. On November 8, 1953, he wrote a letter to Castoriadis, which was later published, along with a response, in number 14 (April-June 1954) of the journal.

Spanning an entire generation, a linguistic divide, and a geographical shift, the epistolary encounter between Pannekoek and Castoriadis in many ways marks the internal transformation of the ultra-left. But the ultra-left, far from a historical relic, is making headlines again. The appearance of a mysterious little book called The Coming Insurrection on bookshelves across the country in 2009 piqued an already growing interest. Not only did Michael Moore name the “leftist call-to-arms manifesto” as his most recent read in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, the tract even climbed to the top of Amazon bestseller list after Glenn Beck told Fox News viewers it was “the most evil book I’ve read in a long, long time.” But this pamphlet was only, if we may lapse into pop sociology, the tipping point for a resurgence of forgotten tendencies, obscure journals, and previously unheard of milieus, which are suddenly being discussed everywhere from academic conferences to national broadcasting channels. It’s likely that the “Invisible Committee” that wrote The Coming Insurrection grew out of Tiqqun, a French group that officially disbanded in 2001 after releasing two issues of its eponymous journal. Tiqqun itself has been rediscovered after the infamous Tarnac affair in 2008, when former members of the group were arrested for sabotaging train lines.

The appearance of new works and translations by groups like Tiqqun, including Troploin, Théorie Communiste, Aufheben, and Echanges et Mouvement, reflect the close engagement of the ultra-left with the tendencies and sensibilities of contemporary activist movements. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education traced the “intellectual roots” of Occupy Wall Street to the anarchist David Graeber, who invoked the language of the ultra-left in his description of the political importance of the general assembly: “One of the things that revolutionaries have learned over the course of the 20th century is that the idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic… You can’t create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre. You can’t establish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same.”1

But this paradigm, though it is thoroughly grounded in the present, nevertheless has deep roots in the past. All of the journals circulating today would deny such a strong link to their own ancestors; they admit the influence of the ultra-left, but none describe themselves as ultra-leftists. Most believe they have made a clean break with this history, and usually only employ the term as an epithet for those still thought to be trapped in antiquated politics. They are on poor terms with each other, and almost certainly would not consider themselves to be part of the same constellation of theories.

Although they have their disagreements, this dissension only conceals a shared unity that unsurprisingly originates from the common heritage they all seem intent on repressing. Many of the defining principles of the historical ultra-left persist, and their peculiar combination of blindness and insight bears the marks of their progenitors. Their shared emphasis on proletarian self-activity, their willingness to deliberately conflate means and ends, their tendency to elide the moment of strategy, their demand for the abolition of a transition period, and their tendency towards fatalism, are all age-old historical debates. And just as before, the ultra-left tendencies of contemporary movements have provoked a backlash from those who call for a return to the fundamentals of political organization, usually represented by the figure of “the party.”

What is now commonly called the ultra-left emerged as an oppositional tendency within the international communist movement in the early 1920s. Though critical of the right, personified by Eduard Bernstein, the center, represented by Karl Kautsky, and even the left, dominated by Lenin, its members never organized themselves into a coherent current: its theorists were spread across several countries, disagreed sharply with one another, and were only grouped together when Lenin criticized them all in his infamous pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Some, like Amadeo Bordiga, fetishized the vanguard party; others, like Otto Rühle, saw workers’ councils as the only organ of the revolutionary process; still others like Paul Mattick turned to crisis theory. But whatever their differences, their shared refusal to participate in parliamentary elections, work with trade unions, or make any compromises with any kind of reformism, unexpectedly brought them all together. It was this underlying stubbornness that allowed Lenin to transform them into a single tendency.

It should be remembered, however, that the ultra-left, despite what it would later become, was actually not a minority tendency in its heyday. Its spokesmen were all major figures in the history of European communism: Bordiga was the first general secretary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the most respected communists in England, and Pannekoek was cautiously praised in Lenin’s State and Revolution as a bulwark against reformism. Even more importantly, the ultra-leftists had such a significant following in the early twenties that they could rightfully claim to be the dominant communist tendency of the time. When the PCI was finally formed in January 1921, it was Bordiga who commanded the majority. And when the German Communist Party (KPD) split in 1920, the vast majority followed the ultra-leftists in forming the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD). The Communist Party, initially led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, had itself broken from reformist groups like the Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the end of December 1918. But the KPD, despite its revolutionary stance, was pulled in several directions. Disagreements over the unions, parliament, and compromise in general, ultimately led to another break. It’s been suggested, however, that the new party, the KAPD, “embraced almost the entire membership of the former KPD.”2 The marginalization of the ultra-left – Bordiga, for example, officially lost control of his party to Gramsci in 1926 – only set in after the defeat of the revolutions to which they were almost organically connected.

With their revolutions crushed, and now harassed by capital on the one side and Comintern on the other, the tendency itself began to eat itself apart from within as ultra-leftists fought each other over the most trivial matters, and by the thirties this once vibrant milieu was reduced to a jumble of sequestered groups. The onset of the Cold War proved to be an especially decisive time for the ultra-left: marginalized more than ever, journals lost much of their already limited readership, organizations disintegrated, and isolated groups ossified into myopic sects. It was in this inhospitable context that two of the most prominent theorists of the tendency made contact.

Castoriadis Meets Pannekoek

The intersection of two lives represents the collision of two worlds. First and foremost, there is the generational divide: Anton Pannekoek was born in 1873, after the defeat of the Paris Commune, and Cornelius Castoriadis in 1922, just as the German Revolution, in which Pannekoek had played a part, was painfully coming to accept its own defeat. Then there is the implicit geographic shift: Pannekoek, born in the Netherlands, played a constitutive role in the development of central European communism, while Castoriadis, Greek by birth, made perhaps the most significant contribution to the emerging French scene that was made famous in May 1968. Their exchange shows the center of gravity of the communist movement moving from Germany back to France, while French theory made increasing reference to German history.

And last, the peculiar convergence of two distinct forms of ultra-leftism: one that defined itself against Lenin and another that actually made a constitutive detour through him. Though always aware of his great achievements, most of the historical ultra-left, from Sylvia Pankhurst to Herman Gorter, eventually grew quite critical of the Bolshevik leader’s theoretical doctrines.  Pannekoek stands as perhaps the greatest example of a tendency that criticized all that Lenin represented, from his philosophical positions to his political practice. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, Pannekoek devoted much of his writing to refuting the universal applicability of Bolshevik tactics. His famous book Workers’ Councils sought to definitively discredit the theory of the vanguard party by demonstrating the historical significance of the councils as the only real form of proletarian emancipation. Against both reformists and Leninists, he claimed that “the new orientation of socialism is self-direction of production, self-direction of the class-struggle, by means of workers’ councils.”3

Castoriadis, in contrast to Pannekoek, had fought in the Greek resistance as a Communist, later joining the Trotskyists in France. Beyond the many positive references to Lenin in his writings of the time, it’s quite clear from his theoretical works and his practical positions that Lenin had left an indelible stamp on him. His ultra-leftism is an unusual case: he entered it through Trotskyism, but broke with that tradition when he argued that “the content of socialism” went beyond the abolition of private property to “workers’ management of society,” down to the organization of work on the shop floor – a historical task whose terms were established by the expansion and integration of managerial labor in postwar capitalism.4 He spent a good decade furiously producing a body of work so important that it would effectively define the far left in France, leading Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the European Green parliamentarian who was the most visible student revolutionary of May 1968, to frankly admit in Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative that he had plagiarized Castoriadis’s work. But then Castoriadis turned his pen against Marxism himself; having already grounded self-management in the critique of alienation in the young Marx, he concluded that the late Marx of Capital had capitulated completely to bourgeois scientism, and brazenly declared that the only way to remain revolutionary was to break from Marxism.

The letters of these figures not only give us a glimpse into the history of the ultra-left, they also speak to our own time. True, our conjuncture is radically different: we no longer face the realities of the Cold War, the role of the Soviet Union, the influence of the Communist Parties, or the uncertainties of decolonization. But there are nevertheless ways in which the present resembles the conjuncture in which these letters were written. We are beginning to glimpse the end of a long period of proletarian defeat, just as Castoriadis and Pannekoek were. They had the courage and insight to discuss the possibilities of revolution, reaffirm the value of autonomous activity, and emphasize the role of the proletariat at a time when intellectuals of the left and right were loudly declaring the integration of the working class, the definitive stabilization of capital, and the impossibility of revolutionary rupture.

But Pannekoek and Castoriadis were vindicated a few years after their exchange. Hungary and Poland erupted in revolution. Councils dotted the social terrain, autonomous activity was the order of the day, and suddenly capital did not seem so secure. If their mode of thought was in alignment with the potential and the limits of these nascent struggles, it seems that today’s ultra-left has a similar alignment with the eruptions of Greece, Spain, France, and England.

Reading through these letters makes it clear that whatever their agreements – and there were many – Pannekoek and Castoriadis differed on the very two questions that had defined the historical ultra-left from the beginning: the nature of the Russian Revolution and the party form. Though both clearly parted ways with the official communist movement, their differences were nevertheless irreconcilable.

Although the exchange circulated around what may appear to be a pedantic rehashing of these two seemingly irrelevant topics, both were using them to think through the key concepts of political practice. Beneath Pannekoek’s questioning of the Russian Revolution or Castoriadis’s consideration of the possible degeneration of the party lies a shared attempt to ascertain the content of the communism of their time. With sufficient historical distance from everything that transpired between the storming of the Winter Palace and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have begun to ask how the content of communism can be reimagined beyond sectarian cliches. For our moment, these letters are remarkably contemporary. To grasp their relevance, we will have to trace the genealogy of these two major questions.

The Russian Revolution

Every communist current that sought to pose an alternative to the practices, policies, and programs of the Soviet Union first had to explain what kind of society it really was – an attempt to understand the meaning of communism as well as capitalism. The dominant explanations in the West for the nature of the USSR were variants of the Trotskyist analysis. However, Lenin had acknowledged, before Stalin’s ascent, that the revolutionary government was not only a proletarian dictatorship, but either a “workers’ and peasants’ state” or a “workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions.”5 During the years of “War Communism,” from 1918 to 1921, when requisition of peasant land and nationalization of industry proceeded alongside the introduction of Taylorism and one-man management in factories, it was actually Trotsky who had called for extension of militarization to the total control of trade unions by the state, as an apparatus of industrial management. Lenin insisted that more independent participation would train workers to ultimately take on the task of management themselves, arguing against Trotsky that the “sum and substance of his policy is bureaucratic harassment of the trade unions.”6

Beginning in 1921 with the “New Economic Policy” (NEP), Lenin argued for the replacement of the state’s “surplus-grain appropriation” with a moderate “tax in kind,” which would permit peasant producers to sell the remainder of their surplus in order to obtain manufactured goods at a more equitable rate. In spite of the reintroduction of market relations this represented, it was a transition to “regular socialist exchange of products,” and indeed an anti-bureaucratic measure, intended to avoid further development of the state bureaucracy that had grown in compensation for “the atomised and scattered state of the small producer with his poverty, illiteracy, lack of culture, the absence of roads and exchange between agriculture and industry.” If NEP represented a movement towards the free market and capitalist relations, this was a necessary step, since it permitted the peasantry to develop social power instead of subjugating it to the interests of the urban and industrial proletariat.7

Lenin had already argued as early as 1918, in a polemic against Russian left communists, that “state capitalism would be a step forward,” even “a sure guarantee that within a year socialism will have gained a permanently firm hold.” Since the transition period contained elements of different economic categories, the direction of large enterprises by the state would be a “proletarian weapon,” since “it is not state capitalism that is at war with socialism, but the petty bourgeoisie plus private capitalism fighting together against both state capitalism and socialism.”8 Now, three years later, he reiterated that the fact that the proletariat, represented by the party, held power in the state, was the primary defense against the “restoration of capitalism.”9 Recalling his earlier intervention on behalf of independent trade unions, Lenin emphasized that in a socialist transition there would still be classes, and therefore “the class struggle is inevitable” – the proletariat would have to use unions to combat bureaucracy and “survivals of the old capitalist system” in the government.10 The combination of an anti-bureaucratic attitude and the continued belief in shared workers’ and peasants’ power coexisted with the somewhat contradictory project of industrializing agriculture, to develop the productive forces to the level of the capitalist mode of production, and NEP manifested these contradictions.

After Lenin’s death, the continuation of NEP was advocated by both Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin, who were part of a hegemonic bloc within the Communist Party. Bukharin, in spite of his earlier leftist enthusiasm for immediate nationalization and industrialization, came to believe in the gradual enrichment of the peasants, which would lead to their identification with the communist project. This found support in Stalin’s insistence on continuing Lenin’s line on the “workers’ and peasants’ government,” defending “the worker-peasant alliance as a cardinal means of achieving the socialist class objectives of the proletarian dictatorship in our peasant country.”11

However, the enthusiasm for NEP was by no means universal; the Left Opposition, which included Trotsky and Bukharin’s former leftist coauthor Yvgeni Preobrazhensky, had warned that agricultural market relations would permit the development of a nascent capitalist class in the countryside. Their fears were confirmed in the rise of the kulaks, the landholding peasants who hired waged laborers and hoarded grain to counteract the drop in agricultural prices. In the 1927 platform of the left, Trotsky described a growing “class differentiation among the peasants,” the slave-like exploitation of farmhands, and a gap between industrial and agricultural prices that threatened to sever the “alliance between town and country.”12

The next year Stalin went to Siberia, to address party members who he accused not only of cooperating with the kulaks, but also living in their homes. He contrasted “socialist construction in the countryside, in agriculture” with the danger of capitalist restoration.13 Later that year, after returning to Moscow, he would rage in party plenums against the “Right deviation” which made restoration possible, since in spite of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the roots of capitalism, of capital and capitalists, were still embedded “in commodity production, in small production in the towns and, especially, the countryside.”14 The threat of regenerating capitalism resulted from the contradiction between two foundations of production in the USSR: “the foundation of the most large-scale and united socialist industry and the foundation of the most scattered and backward, small commodity economy of the peasants.” To succeed, socialist construction would have to place “agriculture on a new technical basis, the basis of large-scale production, and bring it up to the level of socialist industry.”15 With the end of NEP and the elaboration of the first Five Year Plan, Stalin put into place an economic program based on the collectivization of peasant land, aiming at the rapid industrialization of the countryside.

Writing in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky stepped into the middle of these “zig-zags” in policy by painting a picture of the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state.” The workers had taken state power, but it had been usurped by the Stalinist bureaucracy. The difficulty of this view is that the history of the bureaucracy in the USSR could by no means be limited to Stalin – Trotsky had himself contributed to bureaucratization. Furthermore, Lenin had already described a close relationship between bureaucratization and economic development. “Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory,” Trotsky famously wrote in a celebration of Russia’s productive forces, “in the language of steel, cement and electricity”; and he made a point of noting that the blame for Stalin’s terror “lies not upon collectivization, but upon the blind, violent, gambling methods with which it was carried through.”16 But next to Lenin’s acknowledgement that the reorganization of peasant agriculture by industrial state capitalism forced a complex bureaucratic structure, the compatibility of these two positions seems unclear.

An unorthodox Trotskyist shoe salesman named Bruno Rizzi began to circulate an analysis, culminating in 1939’s The Bureaucratization of the World, which claimed that if the bureaucracy had indeed usurped state power, it was impossible to retain the idea of a “workers’ state,” degenerated or otherwise. The original, somewhat ultra-left concept he advanced was “bureaucratic collectivism,” which led Trotsky to conclude that Rizzi had “obviously lost his balance.”17 According to this theory, the managerial bureaucracy was a ruling class that extracted a surplus for its own enrichment, and orchestrated through a totalitarian state a highly developed monopoly capitalism indistinguishable from fascism and the New Deal.

Castoriadis may have had Rizzi’s account in mind when he underscored the primary importance of the bureaucracy as ruling class, but he rejected the earlier emphasis on collectivism. After all, far from a term of Marxist theory, “collectivism” is a quasi-ethical term of sociological description – it says nothing about the political economy of the USSR. For Castoriadis, capitalism as a system was defined by exploitation – the extraction of a surplus from labor by a non-producing class who dominated the production process – and not by market relations, which were essentially epiphenomena. The fact that the ruling class of the USSR operated collectively, rather than competitively, was irrelevant – the society could only be described as bureaucratic capitalism.

When Pannekoek first wrote to Castoriadis, he reminded his younger comrade that the theory of a non-socialist mode of production in the Soviet Union was by no means a development internal to Trotskyism. In fact, the left communists had made the case, arguably even before the Russian Revolution, that the policies of Lenin and Trotsky were not consistent with the struggle for a workers’ state and its accompanying socialist mode of production. This was a theory of “state capitalism,” distinctly different from the later Trotskyist version made famous by Tony Cliff. It held that the displacement of the “soviets” or “workers’ councils” that defined the explosions of 1905 and 1917 by the rule of the party represented the defeat of socialism. In this regard they anticipated the critique of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

However, there was a primary difference. Convinced of the capitalist nature of the Soviet Union, Pannekoek went on to denounce root and branch the very revolution that brought it into being. He called the Russian Revolution “the last bourgeois revolution, though carried out by the working class,” in the tradition of the English Revolution of 1647 and the French Revolution in 1789. By “bourgeois revolution,” he meant specifically “a revolution that destroys feudalism and opens the way to industrialization.” He pointed out that even the historic bourgeois revolutions had been enabled by the revolt of “the artisans, the peasants and the workers,” but since “working class was not yet mature enough to govern itself,” a “minority of functionaries and politicians” emerged as the dominant class. This was inevitable in Russia, “the laboring class being a small minority among the peasant population.”

The paradoxical element of this ultra-left theory, ultimately shared by Rühle and Gorter, was that it swung back around to the paradigm of reformism. Karl Kautsky vehemently denounced the Bolsheviks, before Stalin’s dominance and in opposition to Trotsky, for their notion that a socialist revolution was possible in a Russia that had not yet passed through the capitalist stage of history. As early as 1919, Kautsky wrote that the objective conditions in Russia “were not ripe for the abolition of capitalism,” and that the “immaturity of the existing relations” led the Bolshevik revolution to produce “the most oppressive of all forms of despotism that Russia has ever had.”18

Castoriadis’s response was twofold. He first called attention to the logical problem behind Pannekoek’s purism: the ultimate fate of the Russian Revolution does not alter the fact that within it, the proletariat struggled for its own interests, even instituting workers’ self-management in the factories, rather than subsuming its struggle into the program of the bourgeoisie. The fact that these independent demands were articulated by workers in Russia “made the Russian Revolution forever a proletarian revolution.” His second point was that the concept of the bourgeois revolution ignored a fundamental development in the mode of production of the 20th century: it was the bureaucracy, rather than the bourgeoisie, which ruled in Russia, and it was this same new class that was emerging as a dominating force throughout the world, including the capitalist world.

Throughout the whole ultra-left, these concepts of “bourgeois revolution” and the “bourgeois-democratic tasks” were never put into question. In spite of Pannekoek’s knowledge that Russia was predominantly peasant, that pre-capitalist conditions altered the subjective development of the working class, and that his own theory was developed within the specific conditions of political strikes in urban Europe, he never met the challenge posed by the Bolsheviks of theorizing communist revolution in a peasant society. And though Trotsky did accept the Bolshevik challenge in 1917, the approach to industrial development and “permanent revolution” that would predominate among Trotskyists took as its starting premise the subordination of peasant demands to the industrial proletariat.

But it was precisely the peasant problem that was central to the theories of economic development within the USSR. Just before Pannekoek and Castoriadis’s exchange, in 1951, Stalin wrote a final reflection called Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. There he preempted the entire discussion of state or bureaucratic capitalism in Russia by frankly acknowledging, even after the collectivization and industrialization advocated in his earlier speeches, that the law of value “does exist and does operate,” alongside commodity production, in the Russian economy. While the goods produced by state-owned industry were distributed publicly by the state, agricultural production, even in the form of the kolkhoz, the collective farm, “will not recognize any other economic relation with the town except the commodity relation – exchange through purchase and sale.”19

It is overall an unsettling collision of terms, which recalls Lenin’s argument against the left communists. The attributes ascribed by the left to state capitalism were simply the contradictions of the socialist transition, the persistence of elements of different modes of production within the same economy – including the survivals of capitalist relations.  These contradictions within the USSR became clear when, after denouncing Stalin in the 20th Party Congress and calling for peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world, Nikita Khrushchev organized the sale of the state-owned “Machine and Tractor Stations” to the collective farms – which, Stalin had warned in Economic Problems, meant that the agricultural enterprises would privately own their means of production, a step backwards away from communism.

Only one ultra-leftist seriously engaged with this mode of analysis. Bordiga argued consistently that the central dynamic of the Soviet economy was the “agrarian revolution” – the condition of possibility for capitalism. Bordiga had supported the Bolshevik revolution as proletarian, which he reiterated in a 1926 letter to Korsch, who had taken the state capitalist line; but the same year he personally butted heads with Stalin when he called for the Soviet Union to be governed by the international communist parties that made up the Comintern. While Bordiga supported Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the 1920s, by 1945 he began to argue for an analysis of the Soviet Union that brought him far closer to Bukharin and the right.

The year before Castoriadis and Pannekoek’s exchange, Bordiga wrote a response to Stalin’s Economic Problems called Dialogue with Stalin. His assessment of the Soviet economy was broadly similar, but with an added historical dimension. Not only did the law of value operate in the USSR, so did all the laws of capitalism, since it was impossible to develop the productive forces “without proletarianizing people.” This meant a repetition of the “ferocious” process of primitive accumulation that Marx described in Capital:

It is the kolkhozians who find themselves deprived of their cow, the nomadic shepherds of Asia torn away from the contemplation of the beautiful stars of the Great Bear, or the feudal serfs of Mongolia, uprooted from their soil of a thousand years. It is certain that the orders demand more goods for production, more workers, a longer labor time with a greater intensity of effort, which is to say, an accumulation and expanded reproduction of capital to the rhythm of hell.20

The agrarian revolution, carried out in the process of primitive accumulation, was the violent refashioning of peasants into landless proletarians, the same process that occurred in 17th century England. Unsurprisingly, this returns to Preobrazhensky’s description of the coexistence of planning and the law of value in “socialist primitive accumulation.” While Preobrazhensky had called for a gentle process of accumulation based in progressive taxes, he had ultimately supported Stalin’s leftward turn.

The next step for Bordiga was to describe the economic characteristics of capitalism in Russia. For him, the accumulation of profit was epiphenomenal. What counted instead was the existence of enterprises that engaged in accounting on the basis of a general equivalent, the law of value, and maintained the existence of property. Even though production in Russia was centrally planned by the state, it was carried out by individual enterprises, which meant that property was not social and collective, but restricted to private bodies. The ruling class in Russia were not bureaucrats, but entrepreneurs – consistent with a theory of communism that opposed “human community,” grounded in the human essence described by the young Marx, to commerce, rather than proletariat to capital. For this reason the existence of soviets or councils was essentially irrelevant to Bordiga; if the workers managed enterprises, they were simply managing the capital relation.

So Stalin and Bordiga differed mainly in definitions. Stalin viewed socialism as a contradictory process of construction, while Bordiga argued for a total conception of communism incompatible with survivals from the old regime. But the trick is that Bordiga’s historical analysis, while it led him to condemn the capitalist nature of the USSR, also constrained him to see it as progressive, as he wrote in his Dialogue:

The homage which, in spite of a band of suckers, we render to “Great Stalin” responds precisely to this process of initial capitalist accumulation. If this really reaches the provinces of immense China, mysterious Tibet, and that fabulous Central Asia that the European stock came from, that will be a revolutionary fact, a fact that will move forward the wheel of history, but which, far from being socialist, will be on the contrary a capitalist fact. The elevation of the level of the productive forces in this immense part of the globe is necessary: but Stalin is right when he says that the credit will not go to him, but to the economic laws which have imposed this policy upon him. His whole enterprise consists in a falsification of labels which makes the capitalist commodity pass under the name of socialism and which is, itself, a classic expedient of the agents of primitive accumulation.

In other words, the whole of the ultra-left returned to Kautsky and his stages, which is why Bordiga described Russia as undergoing the transition to capitalism. Indeed, with only entrepreneurs managing production, it had not yet produced a properly capitalist class.

Though Pannekoek and Castoriadis did not directly address these issues, their exchange offers theoretical advances that put the problem of stages in new contexts. On the one hand, the skilled industrial working class who could organize councils on Pannekoek’s model were a such a minority in Russia that is very difficult to understand how this model of organization could lead the nation on a mass scale – and it gives no way of determining how the members of these councils will be fed.

On the other hand, Pannekoek’s theory of a “bourgeois revolution,” though it did not address Bordiga’s agrarian question, did step away from Kautskyan commitment to the fixed progression of stages. While Rühle and Korsch ultimately concluded along with Kautsky that Russia was too backwards, Pannekoek emphasized the subjective development of the class, rather than the objective development of the productive forces. He argued that if state capitalism led to revolution, this “would not be the result of economic crises but of the class struggle” – a political rather than economic change.21 The Russian workers, he wrote in the third letter, were “not yet capable of taking production into their own hands”; and when the party bureaucracy assumed this role in place of the proletariat, it became, ipso facto, the bourgeoisie.

But Pannekoek’s analysis had no way of determining whether the class was ready, particularly if it was spread into distinct forms of production. Castoriadis’s work had focused with greater attention on this problem. He had described the situation of the peasantry as “feudal exploitation” by the bureaucracy, and disputed the classic Bolshevik claim that the “small producer” would serve as the basis of capitalist restoration, instead arguing that only the bureaucracy could play such a role.22 Though he still assumed peasant production should be submitted to urban proletarian leadership, he went on to call for a form of peasant autonomy in “rural communes” analogous to the workers’ council.23 But because in Russia there was no automatic progression towards revolution, and no automatic way to unify the class, Castoriadis continued to insist on the form of the party – our next theme.

The Party

The historical ultra-left was always somewhat divided about the party form. Some, led by Bordiga, defended the notion of a disciplined party even more fervently than Lenin himself. Combining the intransigence of the German left communists with Lenin’s central focus on the party led Bordiga to produce a peculiar breed of vanguardist sectarianism. He soon went from reducing the class to the party to reducing communism itself to little more than the realization of an allegedly coherent, pure, and forever invariant program that was said to stretch back unchanged to the founders themselves. Others, like Karl Korsch, remained ambiguous. Although a member of the KPD, Communist Minister of Justice in the regional Thuringian government, and even a Riechstag deputy until 1928, he eventually broke entirely with the official communist movement and drew very close to Pannekoek, Rühle, and Mattick’s criticisms of the party, ultimately becoming something of an anarchist.

It was the German and Dutch left communists, however, who were the most uncompromising critics of the party form. They effectively offered three distinct, though interrelated, criticisms. The first, which was often shared by the anarchists, was a kind of moral denunciation of the authoritarian, undemocratic, and hierarchical character of parties in general. The second argued that the party, especially in its vanguardist configuration, was largely inapplicable to Western Europe, since its material conditions differed so vastly from those that engendered it in Russia. The third claimed that the proletariat had to prefigure the very world it was trying to create by inventing its own forms of struggle, rather than mirroring those that were firmly entrenched in the old world. Pannekoek summarized this sentiment in his second letter to Castoriadis, describing the need to oppose the established communist parties: “we cannot beat them by following their methods. That is only possible by practicing our own methods.” In terms of actual practice, this translated to a refusal of all bourgeois forms, from the trade unions to parliaments. Otto Rühle captured this sentiment in an essay audaciously titled “The Revolution is Not a Party Affair.”

Even when they did preserve the party as a form of struggle, the leftists severely restricted its role. Indeed, Lenin would at one point exclaim that they had essentially reduced the party of the class to a circle of intellectuals. According to Pannekoek, the party could only play the ancillary role of clarifying, through discussion, debate, and exchange, what the proletariat was already doing. As “organs of self-clarification,” such parties – and Pannekoek always imagined that there would be many – would have to content themselves with doing little more than offering suggestions to the workers, circulating information, and calmly debating their differing points of view.24 They would serve as the investigative subcommittees of a council, from which their destiny would ultimately be indistinguishable.

For both Castoriadis and Pannekoek, there was a primary logical consequence of the Marxist premise that the emancipation of the proletariat could only be the task of the proletariat itself: the council would be the principal organ of proletarian emancipation. By regarding the council as both that which would destroy the old and create the new, both were echoing a characteristic trait of the ultra-left: the deliberate conflation of means and ends.

But in contrast to the seasoned councilist, Castoriadis refused to accept that council would be the only organ of emancipation. He believed that the party could constitute a separate form of struggle, subordinated to, but ultimately distinct from the council: “the party is an organ whose form and substance are unique.”25 Its tasks could not be predetermined, as Pannekoek implied, but would have to vary depending on the particularities of the struggle at hand. If the revolution did indeed lead to the emergence of a network of decentralized councils in which unobstructed discussion could unfold, as Pannekoek suggested in his first letter, then Castoriadis agreed that the party would limit its role. But, Castoriadis quickly added, since the councils would likely become the very sites of class struggle rather than peaceful oases standing outside of it, the party, as something other than the council, could not limit itself to “appearing like the owl of Minerva at nightfall” but would have to set the stage for this struggle:

To be revolutionary signifies both to think that only the masses in struggle can resolve the problem of socialism and not to fold one’s arms for all that; it means to think that the essential content of the revolution will be given by the masses’ creative, original, and unforeseeable activity, and to act oneself, beginning with a rational analysis of the present with a perspective that anticipates the future.26

Experienced as he was with the dirty politics of workplace struggles in an environment dominated by Stalinists on the one hand and reformists on the other, Castoriadis poured some cold water on his friend’s naive faith in rational discussion. He insisted that the party would have to actively prevent counter-revolutionaries from co-opting the struggle, and therefore began to force a disjuncture between means and ends. Unlike the council, the party would not be an end in itself, but could only be a means. The destruction of the old world would have to be something related to but ultimately other than the constitution of a new one. Indeed, sometimes revolutionaries would have to resort to certain unsightly means in order to bring about certain desired ends. This could even mean a militant, even undemocratic, intervention on behalf the councils.

Pannekoek’s subsequent response was enviably simple: sometimes the class is just not ready to make a revolution. No amount of party intervention, no matter how militant, organized, or disciplined can force that class to mature – and in fact, such intervention would actually undermine the struggles of the class, by forcing it into a situation which it did not itself willingly create. The result, whatever the intentions of the revolutionaries, would have to be a new form of oppression.

A famous struggle just after these letters serves as an example. From December 1960 to January 1961 Belgium was rocked by an unexpectedly militant strike wave that ultimately involved some one million workers. Castoriadis called it the most important event, after the uprisngs of 1956, of the entire postwar period; Maurice Brinton, the guiding spirit of Solidarity, took part in them; and Guy Debord arrived the following year as part of a team sent by Socialisme ou Barbarie to research the aftermath of the strikes. The peculiar thing about these strikes, however, was that despite their strength they completely failed to exhibit any autonomous political initiative. Castoriadis put it as follows:

We thus find ourselves faced with a striking contradiction between the combativity of the working class, its solidarity, its awareness of its opposition as a class to the capitalist class and to the capitalist State, its distrust of bureaucracy, on the one hand; and, on the other, the at-present insurmountable difficulty it encounters as it tries to free itself from this bureaucracy’s grasp, to take on in a positive way the direction of its own affairs, to create its own institutions, to formulate explicitly its own objectives.27

Castoriadis’s solution was a revolutionary organization. But imagine, Pannekoek seemed to say, if this organization, which claimed to represent the proletariat, had hastily intervened by seizing the state, appropriating certain points of production, and dispatching red guards out into the streets to fight the Belgian police. Even if their intervention had somehow produced a revolution, the consequences would have been disastrous. Neither the proletariat, nor those other class formations which it would have to lead down the road of revolution, were prepared for such a situation. Rather than emancipating themselves, they would only enter a different kind of class society.

Castoriadis never wrote a direct reply. But he had already elaborated the basic premises of his position. Just as we can never really know if our actions will turn us into bureaucrats, we can also never know whether the proletariat is mature or not; there is simply no way to scientifically measure whether a class is ripe for power. In some cases, as with the Belgian strikes, there is some clarity. But in others, such as the Russian revolution of 1905, it is simply impossible to tell. When the first workers went on strike, no one expected the whole country to explode in insurrection. Even the revolutionaries who had studied the contours of the class struggle for decades were caught off guard, and had to determine what to do in this new situation.  As it turns out, revolutionaries chose to intervene and the class was defeated – but we can only imagine the outcome if, after a sober assessment of the situation, the professional revolutionaries had decided not to intervene because the class was not ripe for power. What would have been the result if the party had chosen to fold its arms, take a step backward, and sit on the sidelines? Who is to say that it was not the very intervention of these revolutionaries, their very attempt to escalate a struggle possibly doomed to defeat, that later prepared the material conditions for victory less than a decade later?

The messiness of history demonstrates the difficulty of translating Pannekoek’s thoughts on class immaturity into concrete practice. But as we have already seen, this ambiguous position also contains an original answer to an old question: what are the necessary objective conditions for a successful revolution? For Pannekoek, immature objective conditions are not the result of underdeveloped industrial production. In fact, objective conditions are really nothing other than the general level of the class struggle itself. Because capital is an antagonistic relationship between two classes, its maturity or immaturity can only be understood with reference to the conflict between these classes. So when Pannekoek speaks of unripe objective conditions, he is actually referring to the underdeveloped subjective conditions of the class struggle itself. Claiming that Russia was unripe for revolution did not mean it was economically backward, only that the proletariat was not developed enough to take power on its own.

But here, as Castoriadis intimates, Pannekoek ultimately reveals his failure to understand the specific class dynamics of Russia on the eve of the revolution. For him, it is enough to claim that the class was not ready to take power simply because, at the end of the day, the party had to step in. His logic is consistent only if one assumes that communism will adopt the same form at all times: the gradual spread of councils over the totality of the social fabric. If this fails to happen, then the revolution was bourgeois; if it does, which, one might add, it never has, then it was communist. It is this static conception of communism, this refusal to accept that communism may appear differently in different historical conditions, that it may have to be produced by a diversity of means, that led him to misread the particularities of the Russian struggle.

Now the two questions, the nature of the Soviet Union on the one hand and the role of the party on the other, intersect dramatically. If Pannekoek had paid serious attention to the history of class relations in Russia, he would have seen that the characteristics of the proletariat at that historical moment – its technical makeup, its political forms, its relationship to the other classes – made it impossible for the class to take power without party intervention. Because Russia was so riven by class divisions, a revolution with any chance of success would have to find some way to forge an alliance between proletarian vanguards and peasant masses in a way that could transcend these separations. Pannekeok would have seen that the class was, at that conjuncture, actually quite ready. It just had to assume a different political form, one distinct from the soviets, in order to make the revolution.

This gap goes a long way in explaining Pannekoek’s somewhat confusing belief that the party can never actually be a part of the class itself. In his letters, he seems to argue that any enlarged conception of the party would necessarily transform it into a special forces team, which would be called in to bash heads when the class runs into trouble. He refused to entertain the possibility that the party, as was the case in Russia, may itself be a necessary element of the class. Unlike Castoriadis, who tried to capture the significance of the French Communist Party by studying its possible social bases, its particular history, and its broader relationship to the class struggle itself, Pannekoek contented himself with simply arguing that it was on the side of capital. For Castoriadis, this was not good enough; the task was to meticulously analyze the peculiar, and rather unprecedented, composition of a reformist party working in the service of a foreign country, to “explain patiently the complete workings and material roots of Stalinism’s betrayal” in order to definitively outflank it.28

Pannekoek deliberately ignored these kinds of questions – questions, he would say, that have been posed in “an entirely practical way” – because his vision of revolution, despite its numerous merits, was still largely informed by a kind of fatalism. Proletarians will naturally figure everything out based on their immediate experiences, as though they possess some kind of innate knowledge organically driving them to a specified goal, like an acorn growing into an oak tree. They will spontaneously become political subjects, like the logical result of an equation, and make their revolution on their own. If they run into any setbacks, it’s only because they still don’t have enough experience; if they suffer a defeat, it’s only because they weren’t ready. For the Pannekoek of these letters, there is no gap between immediate needs and the emancipation of the class through revolution. The two seamlessly blend into one another in such a way as to entirely cover up the moment of strategy.

But in order to explore these themes further we have to take a step backward. Though many of the problems above – the conflation of means and ends, the elision of strategy, the suppression of class heterogeneity, and the reversion to fatalism – persist within today’s ultra-left, the best way to understand and eventually supersede them is to go back to their genesis. This means returning to another famous encounter, that between the ultra-left and Lenin himself. It was Lenin, after all, who united a set of radically distinct groups under the umbrella of the “ultra-left.” Our forthcoming investigation, therefore, will move backwards to Lenin and his adversaries.

Until then, we present the letters. The first entry in this exchange, from Pannekoek to Castoriadis, has been available on the internet, and we reproduce that version here. Pannekoek indicates that he wrote the letter in English, but it was ultimately translated into French for publication in Socialisme ou Barbarie. It is not clear whether this version is a translation or the original English text. Castoriadis’s response, written under the pen name Pierre Chaulieu, and a final response by Pannekoek, have only been available in French. The versions available here are our translations from the originals reprinted at mondialisme.org.


1. Dan Berrett, “Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 16, 2011.

2. Denis Authier and Jean Barrot (Gilles Dauvé), La gauche communiste en Allemagne. 1918-1921 (Paris: Payot, 1976), p. 159; English version at marxists.org.

3. Anton Pannekoek, WorkersCouncils (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2003), p. 206.

4. Cornelius Castoriadis, “On the Content of Socialism, I” in Political and Social Writings, Volume 1, 1946-1955: From the Critique of Bureaucracy to the Positive Content of Socialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 298.

5. VI Lenin, “The Party Crisis” in Collected Works, vol. 32 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), p. 48.

6. Lenin, “The Trade Unions and Trotsky’s Mistakes” in Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 42.

7. Lenin, “The Tax in Kind” in Collected Works, vol. 32, pp. 342, 351.

8. Lenin, “Left-Wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality” in Collected Works, vol. 27, pp. 335, 349, 336.

11. JV Stalin, “Concerning the Question of a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government” in Works, vol. 9 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954), p. 189.

12. Leon Trotsky, Platform of the Joint Opposition, chs. 1 and 3, reprinted at marxists.org.

14. Stalin, “The Right Danger in the CPSU(B)” in Works, vol. 11, p. 313.

16. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2004), pp. 7, 31.

17. Trotsky, “The USSR in War” in In Defense of Marxism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1995), p. 55.

18. Karl Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism, ch. 8, reprinted at marxists.org.

19. Stalin, Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972), pp. 10, 15.

20. Amadeo Bordiga, Dialogue avec Staline, “Deuxième journée,” reprinted at sinistra.net. All quotations are our translations from French.

21. Pannekoek, “State Capitalism and Dictatorship,” reprinted at marxists.org.

22. Castoriadis, “The Peasantry Under Bureaucratic Capitalism” in PASW 1, pp. 162.

23. Castoriadis, “On the Content of Socialism, II” in Political and Social Writings, Volume 2, 1955-1960: From the Workers’ Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp. 134, 149.

24. Pannekoek, “Party and Working Class,” 1936, reprinted at marxists.org.

25. Castoriadis, “Proletarian Leadership” in PASW 1, p. 203.

26. Castoriadis, “On the Content of Socialism, I” in PASW 1, p. 298.

27. Castoriadis, “The Signification of the Belgian Strikes” in Political and Social Writings, Volume 3, 1961-1979: Recommencing the Revolution: From Socialism to the Autonomous Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 4.

28. Castoriadis, “Stalinism in France” in PASW 1, p. 65.

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, and an activist in UAW 2865.

is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.