Letter 1: Pannekoek to Castoriadis

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

I offer you many thanks for the series of eleven issues of Social­isme ou Bar­barie that you gave to com­rade B… to give to me. I read them (though I haven’t yet fin­ished) with great inter­est, because of the great agree­ment between us that they reveal. You prob­a­bly remarked the same thing when read­ing my book Les Con­seils ouvri­ers. For many years it seemed to me that the small num­ber of social­ists who expounded these ideas hadn’t grown; the book was ignored and was met with silence by almost the entire social­ist press (except, recently, in the Social­ist Leader of the ILP). So I was happy to get to know a group that had arrived at the same ideas through an inde­pen­dent route. The com­plete dom­i­na­tion by work­ers of their labor, which you express by say­ing: “The pro­duc­ers them­selves orga­nize the man­age­ment of pro­duc­tion,” I described in the chap­ters on “the orga­ni­za­tion of work­shops” and “social orga­ni­za­tion.” The organ­isms the work­ers need for delib­er­a­tions, formed of assem­blies of del­e­gates that you call “soviet organ­isms,” are the same as those that we call “con­seils ouvri­ers,” “arbeitr­rate,” “work­ers councils.”

Cer­tainly there are dif­fer­ences. I will deal with them, con­sid­er­ing this as an essay in con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­cus­sion in your review. While you restrict the activ­ity of these organ­isms to the orga­ni­za­tion of labor in fac­to­ries after the tak­ing of social power by the work­ers, we con­sider them as also being the organ­isms by means of which the work­ers will con­quer this power. In the con­quest of power we have no inter­est in a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary party” that will take the lead­er­ship of the pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion. This “rev­o­lu­tion­ary party” is a Trot­sky­ist con­cept that (since 1930) has found adher­ents among many for­mer par­ti­sans of the Com­mu­nist Party who have been dis­ap­pointed by the prac­tice of the lat­ter. Our oppo­si­tion and crit­i­cism go back to the first years of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, and were directed at Lenin and were caused by his turn towards polit­i­cal oppor­tunism. We have remained out­side the Trot­sky­ist road: we have never been under his influ­ence. We con­sider Trot­sky the most able spokesman for Bol­she­vism, and he should have been Lenin’s suc­ces­sor. But after hav­ing rec­og­nized in Rus­sia a nascent cap­i­tal­ism, our atten­tion was prin­ci­pally on the west­ern world of big cap­i­tal where the work­ers will have to trans­form the most highly devel­oped cap­i­tal­ism into real com­mu­nism (in the lit­eral sense of the word). By his rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor Trot­sky cap­ti­vated all the dis­si­dents that Stal­in­ism had thrown out of the Com­mu­nist Par­ties, and in inoc­u­lat­ing them with the Bol­she­vik virus it ren­dered them almost inca­pable of under­stand­ing the great new tasks of the pro­le­tar­ian revolution.

Because the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and its ideas still have such a strong influ­ence over people’s spir­its, it’s nec­es­sary to more pro­foundly pen­e­trate its fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter. In a few words, it was the last bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, though car­ried out by the work­ing class. “Bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion” sig­ni­fies a rev­o­lu­tion that destroys feu­dal­ism and opens the way to indus­tri­al­iza­tion, with all the social con­se­quences this implies. The Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion is thus in the direct line of the Eng­lish Rev­o­lu­tion of 1647, and the French Rev­o­lu­tion of 1789, as well as those that fol­lowed in 1830, 1848 and 1871. Dur­ing the course of these rev­o­lu­tions the arti­sans, the peas­ants and the work­ers fur­nished the mas­sive strength needed to destroy the ancien régime. After­wards, the com­mit­tees and polit­i­cal par­ties of the men rep­re­sent­ing the rich strata that con­sti­tuted the future dom­i­nant class came to the fore­front and took con­trol of gov­ern­men­tal power. This was a nat­ural result, since the work­ing class was not yet mature enough to gov­ern itself. In this new class soci­ety, where the work­ers were exploited, such a dom­i­nant class needs a gov­ern­ment com­posed of a minor­ity of func­tionar­ies and politi­cians. In a more recent era, the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion seemed to be a pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion, the work­ers hav­ing been its authors through their strikes and mass actions. Nev­er­the­less, the Bol­she­vik Party, lit­tle by lit­tle, later suc­ceeded in appro­pri­at­ing power (the labor­ing class being a small minor­ity among the peas­ant pop­u­la­tion). Thus the bour­geois char­ac­ter (in the largest sense of the term) of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion became dom­i­nant and took the form of state cap­i­tal­ism. Since then, due to its ide­o­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual influ­ence in the world, the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion has become the exact oppo­site of a pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion that lib­er­ates the work­ers and ren­ders them mas­ters of the pro­duc­tive apparatus.

For us the glo­ri­ous tra­di­tion of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion con­sists in the fact that in its first explo­sions, in 1905 and 1917, it was the first to develop and show to the work­ers of the whole world the orga­ni­za­tional form of their autonomous rev­o­lu­tion­ary action: the sovi­ets. From that expe­ri­ence, con­firmed later on, on a smaller scale in Ger­many, we drew our ideas on the forms of mass action that are proper to the work­ing class, and that it should apply in order to obtain its own liberation.

Pre­cisely opposed to this are the tra­di­tions, the ideas, and the meth­ods that come from the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion when the Com­mu­nist Party takes power. These ideas, which only serve as obsta­cles to cor­rect pro­le­tar­ian action, con­sti­tuted the essence and the basis of Trotsky’s propaganda.

Our con­clu­sion is that the forms of orga­ni­za­tion of autonomous power, expressed by the terms “sovi­ets” or “work­ers coun­cils” must serve as much in the con­quest of power as in the direc­tion of pro­duc­tive labor after this con­quest. In the first place this is because the power of the work­ers over soci­ety can­not be obtained in any other way, for exam­ple by what is called a rev­o­lu­tion­ary party; in the sec­ond place, because these sovi­ets, which will later be nec­es­sary for pro­duc­tion, can only be formed through the class strug­gle for power.

It seems to me that in this con­cept the “knot of con­tra­dic­tions” of the prob­lem of “rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship” dis­ap­pears. For the source of con­tra­dic­tions is the impos­si­bil­ity of har­mo­niz­ing the power and the free­dom of a class gov­ern­ing its own des­tiny, with the require­ment that it obey a lead­er­ship formed by a small group or party. But can such a require­ment be main­tained? It clearly con­tra­dicts the most quoted idea of Marx’s, i.e., that the lib­er­a­tion of the work­ers will be the task of the work­ers them­selves. What is more, the pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion can’t be com­pared to a sim­ple rebel­lion or a mil­i­tary cam­paign led by a cen­tral com­mand, nor even to a period of strug­gle sim­i­lar, for exam­ple, to the great French rev­o­lu­tion, which itself was noth­ing but an episode in the bour­geois ascen­sion to power. The pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion is much more vast and pro­found; it is the acces­sion of the mass of the peo­ple to the con­scious­ness of their exis­tence and their char­ac­ter. It will not be a sim­ple con­vul­sion; it will form the con­tent of an entire period in the his­tory of human­ity, dur­ing which the work­ing class will have to dis­cover and real­ize its own fac­ul­ties and poten­tial, as will as its own goals and means of strug­gle. I attempted to elab­o­rate on cer­tain aspects of this rev­o­lu­tion in my book Les Con­seils Ouvri­ers in the chap­ter enti­tled “The Work­ers’ Rev­o­lu­tion.” Of course, all of this only pro­vides an abstract schema that can be used to bring to the fore­front the diverse forces in action and their relations.

It’s pos­si­ble that you will now ask: Within the frame­work of this ori­en­ta­tion what pur­pose does a party or a group serve, and what are its tasks? We can be sure that our group won’t suc­ceed in com­mand­ing the work­ing masses in their rev­o­lu­tion­ary action: besides us there are a half-dozen or more groups or par­ties who call them­selves rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but who all dif­fer in their pro­grams and ideas, and com­pared to the great Social­ist Party, these are noth­ing but Lil­liputians. Within the frame­work of the dis­cus­sion in issue num­ber 10 of your review it was cor­rectly asserted that our task is essen­tially the­o­ret­i­cal: to find and indi­cate, through study and dis­cus­sion, the best path of action for the work­ing class. Nev­er­the­less, the edu­ca­tion based on this should not be intended solely for mem­bers of a group or party, but the masses of the work­ing class. It will be up to them to decide the best way to act in their fac­tory meet­ings and their Coun­cils. But in order for them to decide in the best way pos­si­ble they must be enlight­ened by well-considered advice com­ing from the great­est num­ber of peo­ple pos­si­ble. Con­se­quently, a group that pro­claims that the autonomous action of the work­ing class is the prin­ci­pal form of the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion will con­sider that its pri­mary task is to go talk to the work­ers, for exam­ple by means of pop­u­lar tracts that will clar­ify the ideas of the work­ers by explain­ing the impor­tant changes in soci­ety, and the need for the work­ers to lead them­selves in all their actions, includ­ing in future pro­duc­tive labor.

Here you have some of the reflec­tions raised by the read­ing of the very inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions pub­lished in your review. In addi­tion, I’d like to say how sat­is­fied I was by the arti­cles on “The Amer­i­can worker,” which clar­i­fies a large part of the enig­matic prob­lem of that work­ing class with­out social­ism, and the instruc­tive arti­cle on the work­ing class in East Ger­many. I hope that your group will have the chance to pub­lish more issues of its review.

You will excuse me for hav­ing writ­ten this let­ter in Eng­lish; it’s dif­fi­cult for me to express myself sat­is­fac­to­rily in French.

Reprinted from marxists.org and libcom.org

Author of the article

was an astronomer and one of the founding theorists of council communism.