Action against War

Anton Pannekoek in ‘New Review’, 1915 (Fragment)

“It is not enough for the workers to oppose war, every war, to refuse to be led astray by the cry of national defense. They must also have the power and the means to prevent war.”  (1)

In the International Socialist Review for November a writer rightly condemns the European Socialists in no measured terms for having violated their duty as Socialists. (…) Germany, not to speak of the others, was not ready for a proletarian revolution.

(…) let us first examine the meaning of the word “revolution.” What seems in the distant horizon a single fine streak of color becomes, as we approach it a broad landscape with hills and valleys, full of variation. So a revolution, which in the distance looms up as one indivisible final goal, as one single, glowing deed, becomes as we approach it a whole historical period with peculiar characteristics, full of charges, of ascents and descents, of great events and deadening reverses. He who stands far from the goal in the midst of the first period of propaganda and rallying of forces, in the first period of the workers’ awakening, is right when he points to the revolution as something in the distant future, as the signal for all great coming changes. There lies the mountain, the glowing summit, whose view inspires us with courage and patience as we painfully force our way through thicket and morass. But when the great masses have been organized and are filled with the spirit of Socialism, then Revolution ceases to be an ideal and becomes a practical question. The distant ideal becomes definite, difficult practice. How shall we go on? He who stands at the foot of the mountain still has the most difficult, the nearest way to go.

Now only can he see it plainly. This was, approximately, the position of the German working-class movement. To the comrades in other countries it seemed so large, so mighty, so strong, that they asked: Why do not the Germans make a Revolution? In reality they but stood at the foot of the mountain. In reality the German saw most clearly how difficult, how great a struggle still remained, how far off still was victory and Socialism.

Revolutions are not made; they grow out of deeds, movements, struggles, when circumstances have become ripe. This ripeness of conditions depends upon the existence of a revolutionary class internally so strong, possessing such great social power, that every struggle, every action, results in a victory. The great French Revolution, for instance, was a long chain of rebellions, of meetings of delegated bodies, of peaceful legislation and bloody wars.

It was due to the strength and the stubborn self-confidence of the middle class that the beginning, the calling of the “Generalstände” (2) for the alleviation of the financial straits of its governments, culminated in the Revolution. Every courageous word, every bold deed, every bitter battle with the government aroused energy and enthusiasm in thousands and drew them into the struggle. Their determination forced the government to make concessions, but each new concession, each new attempt at suppression weakened the position of the government. The first representatives that met in 1789 had only modest aims; they hardly knew the strength of their own class. Only during the Revolution and through it, their strength and the strength of the middle class grew and with its power grew its demands. In 1848 we see similar developments. The immediate cause was a parliamentary conflict between the middle class opposition and the government. The prohibition of a public demonstration resulted in tumults, which fed by the deep dissatisfaction of the masses and the small bourgeoisie grew until the whole governmental system was overthrown. And if we look upon the Revolution in a still wider sense, as the conquest of power by the new class of the bourgeoisie, we see a process that lasted for hundreds of years, bitter class struggles alternating with periods of quiet growth of economic power.

The proletarian revolution, which is once more to place a new class into power, will also be a long historical process, though it may be completed in a comparatively much shorter time than the ascent of the bourgeoisie to power on account of the rapidity of economic development. This process divides naturally into a number of individual revolutionary actions, which alternate with periods of quiet, of peaceful organization and even of periodic collapse.

For a revolutionary action of this kind it is not necessary that the majority of the workers think as Socialists, that they must be willing to sacrifice all for the Socialist Revolution. Minorities can undertake such actions when they feel that the unthinking masses will sympathize with its aim and can be swept along by the force of the movement. Of course, the might of the proletariat, its organization and class-consciousness, must have reached a certain stage to engage in this revolutionary action. And by this action hopefulness, energy and proletarian class-consciousness, the solidarity of the masses, in short the strength of the proletariat, are strengthened so that they will be capable of undertaking still more difficult struggles. The aim of such an action is not the Revolution. These actions are undertaken to gain more insignificant ends, that may be termed important reforms. But the success of the struggle or perhaps the opposition which necessarily calls forth more energetic activity, will mean increased strength, courage, self-confidence. Aims will grow larger and higher as the scope of the struggle widens. (…) «

(Source: “From the 2nd to the 3rd Internationale. Three articles by Anton Pannekoek”.)



2 Estates General or ‘états généraux’. See for instance “Estates General of 1789” at Wikipedia.