Anton Pannekoek: Marxism and Darwinism (1909, 1914)

b) A dialectical materialism that is but little historical?

Pannekoek’s analysis, in the field of historical materialism, is sometimes based on unclear knowledge and even on prejudices related to the geographical area he belonged to. For Pannekoek, humanity at the end of Antiquity seems to be reduced to the Mediterranean world, superbly ignoring the Chinese and Indian world with which the Roman Empire had long been trading: “At the end of antiquity we see all known mankind around the Mediterranean at that time organized into a single unit, the Roman Empire.” (1)

Equally approximate was his analysis of the Middle Ages, which he considers an immutable block from the seventh to the fifteenth Century. For Pannekoek, this whole period is purely feudal and remains backward, in terms of tools, until the end. Socially, the two existing dominant classes were, according to him, the nobility (Adeltum) and the petty bourgeoisie (Kleinbürgertum), ignoring the banking and industrial capitalism in full development in Italy and Flanders, (2) ignoring also the formation of a proletariat in the textile and metallurgy industries, a proletariat that rose up in Bruges (1375), Ypres and Florence (Ciompi, 1378), (3) and who clashed with a bourgeoisie that, even at the head of the government of the communes, had no intention of granting it the slightest “freedom”.

His analysis of ascendant capitalism, the reign of absolute freedom for Capital, is very approximate. One can read the following astonishing assertion in a passage in this work: “When the bourgeoisie conquered political power and thus made capitalism the ruling economic order, it began by breaking feudal bonds and freeing people.” (4)

In his polemic against Proudhon, Marx had already strongly insisted, since 1846, on the development of an industrial and commercial capitalism leaning on the slavery mode of production, particularly in the USA:

“Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.” (5)

[This is] without taking into account the development of forced work in the colonies, as in the Congo and the Dutch East Indies, and Pannekoek was not ignorant of the tragic situation of these new slaves, whose fate was at least as miserable as that of the proletarians rotting in the waged industrial prisons, or bound to the land in immense estates. This state of real slavery was by the way one of the causes of the outbreak of the world revolution in Russia in 1917, as Pannekoek himself underlined many times in his articles (6) up to the publication of The Workers’ councils in 1946.

In his pamphlet of 1909, Pannekoek appears sometimes as a victim of a certain Marxist Vulgate that predominated the social-democratic workers’ movement. We find, for example, this disarmingly naive assertion that considers the size and power of machines as the ultimate reason for the mode of production. We can read the following “historic” wrap-up that condenses a vulgar materialism widespread in the social democracy of the time, which was later taken up by Stalinism, but that Pannekoek would fight strongly after 1920 (7):

The forms of labour, the relations of production depend on the tools with which work is done, they depend on the technology, on the productive forces in general. In the Middle Ages people worked with small tools and now they work with large machines; that is why small handicrafts and feudalism prevailed then, and large-scale capitalism today. As a result, the feudal nobility and petty bourgeoisie used to be the dominant classes, and now they are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” (8)

The cutting tool of “historical materialism” used by Pannekoek even seems somewhat blunt, when he ventured to write that “nature remains the same throughout human history”. (9) This is not only questioning the concept of VARIATION which animates all of Darwin’s work, and which Pannekoek evokes on several occasions, but relegating to oblivion this fundamental idea that what was once called a NATURAL HISTORY of living beings is indeed a HISTORY OF LIVING NATURE for about three billion years. (10)

The interest of this work by Pannekoek lies less in its approximate use of “historical materialism” (and his definite interest in the Darwinian doctrine of “social instincts”) than in its conception of Marxism as a “weapon of the proletariat”. Marxism is opposed to the ideology of social Darwinism, a “weapon of the bourgeoisie”, as from the outset ardently adopted by the bourgeoisie”. The latter in fact rallies to an “armored materialism”, where the Christian idea that the “first would be the last and the last the first” in earthly or heavenly paradise has become a crime against capitalism, which well deserves to rid oneself without delay of the biblical tradition. (11)

Pannekoek dismantled the mechanics of “social Darwinism”, which had become an essential weapon of bourgeois ideology. He recalled that Darwin, despite his Kantian profession of faith in 1871, had played a major role in the formation of the bourgeois ideology of the struggle of the “fittest”, of the “most intelligent”, the “gentlemen” to maintain their domination over the “inferior”, the “weakest”, who were condemned to disappear:

“Darwin’s struggle for existence found its model in capitalist competition; now, capitalist competition was compared with the struggle for existence of animals and thereby elevated to the dignity of a natural law. [For Darwin] “The best adapted will be the survivors. The struggle for existence leads to a natural selection.”(12)

Spencer in England and Haeckel in Germany only pushed the logic of Darwinian reasoning, which became that of social Darwinism, to its ultimate limits. For Spencer, it was an opportunity to develop a libertarian capitalist ideology, obsessed by the danger of a degeneration of its system under the effect of the revolt of the “inferior races” that had to be contained, if not energetically purged: “Thus, the struggle for existence at the same time forms a process of purification of the race, which is thereby preserved from deterioration. This is the salutary effect of the struggle, in which everyone, according to their effort and quality, is more or less successful in ensuring the highest possible perfection through strict discipline.” (13)

The enemy, for the ruling class, was first and foremost Marxist socialism, drawing its vampire-like strength from the millions of exploited people living under the iron heel of capitalism. The ideology of both a Spencer and a Haeckel is that of a ruling class feeling threatened in its existence. For these defenders of “RACE” and “CIVILIZATION”, the progress of capitalism (14) could only be indefinite, unless “new barbarians”, the proletarians, the “lower classes”, come to establish communism, leading for them to “the relapse into barbarism, into the primitive animal state of the brutish primitive peoples.” (15)

The secondary benefit of Darwinism for the bourgeoisie was to ensure it a hegemonic, undivided power, by nullifying the power of the Church and the aristocracy, by using the authority of science raised to the rank of the bourgeoisie’s new religion. In Germany, in particular, where

“Darwinism was a weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie in its struggle against the feudal classes, nobility, clergy and monarchy. This was a completely different struggle from that of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie was not an exploited class that sought to abolish exploitation; no, it obstructed the rule of the old powers, because it wanted to rule in its own right. (…) What could the old classes, which had become useless, superfluous parasites, oppose to this? They relied on tradition, their ancient divine law. (…) Therefore, the bourgeoisie was obliged in its own interest to undermine the sanctity of this tradition and the truth of religion. Natural science became its weapon; the bourgeoisie contrasted science with faith, the newly discovered natural laws with revelation…” (16)

In fact, Darwinian laws merely transposed from the animal realm into the human realm the struggle of capitalism to DOMINATE (and CRUSH) both society and nature. These so-called immutable laws, in fact the laws of competition, became the “scientific foundation of inequality” of bourgeois society, allowing “the best to triumph, while the bad die out”.

In reality, as Pannekoek forcefully points out, these laws lead directly to the crushing of each person’s potentialities, to the shameless triumph of the negative world of possession over that of social being. In the struggle for existence, under capitalism, “It is not personal qualities, but the possession of money, of wealth, that decides the success in the struggle for existence.” (17)

The consequence is not the acceleration of “progress” (for the sole benefit of “good(s) people”), a myth propagated by both positivists and Darwinists, but rather the acceleration of the decadence of human societies: “The capitalist struggle for existence does not lead to the victory of the most efficient in the moral sense; therefore, it does not lead to moral improvement; rather, a deterioration of humanity is its consequence. (18)

Faced with the disorder of an irrational world, where the exploited are subjected to the most ferocious competition and to miserable wages, not even sufficient to meet their own needs, Marxism sets itself the task to “mitigate the struggle and substitute a rational, moral world order for that of the animal.” (19)

Showing that language, thought and conscience were man’s own, whose “struggle for existence in human society must not be conducted according to the crude, unsparing principles of the animal kingdom”, Pannekoek emphasized the fundamental difference between bourgeois materialism and Marxist socialism, the maintenance or suppression of all inequality, the maintenance or suppression of fierce competition between workers, where not solidarity but the war of all against all dominates:

“Socialism is a theory which presupposes natural equality for people, and strives to bring about social equality; equal rights, equal duties, equal possessions and equal enjoyments. (…) This means that the struggle for existence in the human world comes to an end. The struggle is only outwards, no longer as a competition against other species, but as a fight for a livelihood against nature. But the development of technology and the science that goes with it means that this struggle can hardly be called a struggle. Nature has become subject to human beings and offers them a safe, abundant livelihood with little effort.” (20)

In the final paragraphs of the work a worrying utopia was being expressed. Nature, transformed by an antagonistic force, was becoming a land of milk and honey, where what was necessary became superfluous, thanks to the two beaks of the pliers: Technology and Science. A binomial that was in all the equations of Scientism, and that Pannekoek denounced from the 1930s onward, by attacking head-on the Stalinist ideology, that of the “construction of socialism” in the “Soviet fatherland”, put in place since 1925. (21)

Next paragraph: c) Natural man against nature?

→ Page 4 (link at the bottom of this page)



1 Ibid, Ch. 7: Social Coexistence. The knowledge of China and India as units of civilization was already widespread in Rome so that Horace, Virgil, Propertius, Strabo, Pomponius Mela, Pliny, Dionysius the Periegete, Stace, Martial and Juvenal referred to the Chinese empire, which the Indians called CHINA. (Joseph-Toussaint Reinaud, “Relations politiques et commerciales de l’empire romain avec l’Asie orientale pendant les cinq premiers siècles de l’ère chrétienne, d’après les témoignages latins, grecs, arabes, persans, indiens et chinois”, in Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1863, p. 67-108).

2 Cf. Jean Gimpel, La Révolution industrielle au Moyen Âge, Seuil, 2002.

3 Cf. W. H. TeBrake, A plague of insurrection. Popular politics and peasant revolts in Flanders, 1323-1328, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1993; and Alessandro Stella, La révolte des Ciompi. Les hommes, les lieux, le travail, EHESS, Paris, 1993.

4 Op. cit., Ch. 10: Capitalism and Socialism. [Translation of the larger fragment: “When the bourgeoisie conquered political power and thus made capitalism the ruling economic order, it began by breaking feudal bonds and freeing people. This was necessary for capitalism; each producer had to be able to compete at his own discretion without any bond that restricted his freedom of movement, without any regard to corporate duties, and without any obstacles due to legal regulations; this was the only way to develop production to meet all requirements.”]

6 Cf. J[ohn]. H[arper]. (A. Pannekoek), On the Communist Party, in: International Council Correspondence, Vol. II (1935-1936), No 7 (June 1936): “World revolution was the great battle cry. Everywhere in the world, in Europe, Asia, America, among the oppressed classes and the oppressed peoples, the call was heard and workers arose. They were animated by the Russian example, feeling that now thru the war, capitalism was shaken from its foundations, that it was weakened still more by the economic disorders and crisis”.

7 This applies in particular to Pannekoek’s Lenin as philosopher (1938) and his Anthropogenesis (1944).

8 Ibid., Ch. 2: Marxism.

9 Ibid., Ch. 6: Natural Principle and Social Theory.

10 Cf. François Jacob: “… every living organism today represents the last link in an unbroken chain of some three billion years. Living beings are in fact historical structures; they are literally creations of history.” (Le jeu des possibles. Essai sur la diversité du vivant, Fayard, Paris, 1981).

11 Ibid, Ch. 4: Darwinism and the Class Struggle. Pannekoek makes it clear in this passage that this was not the same in England, where the position of the bourgeoisie, assured for several centuries, was based on the compromise between the Anglican throne and altar.

12 Ibid., Ch. 5: Darwinism against Socialism; Ch. 1: Darwinism.

13 Spencer quoted by Pannekoek, op. cit., Ch. 5: Darwinism against Socialism.

14 In The descent of man’ Darwin asserted that “progress has generally outweighed retrogression”.

15 Quotation of Haeckel by Pannekoek, op. cit., Ch. 5: Darwinism against Socialism.

16 Ibid., Ch. 4: Darwinism and the Class Struggle.

17 Ibid., Ch. 5: Darwinism against Socialism.

18 Ibid. This idea, which recurrently appeared in religious literature, was developed in a socialist sense by Emil Richter in his book Menschheit und Capital. Studien über Bewegung und Verhältnisse einflußreicher Erscheinungen des Lebens und der allgemeinen Entwickelung, Leipzig, 1872 & 1878. This book was a systematic attack on the liberalism that was leading humanity to its downfall by its inextinguishable thirst for profit. The alternative to liberalism was Gesellschaftlichkeit (sociability), i.e. Socialismus (socialism).

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., Our emphasis added. “Abundant”, in addition to the sense of “superfluous”, also has the meaning of “for free”. In this sense, we can read Bastiat’s reflection on the alleged “gratuitous gift” of nature: “The truth is that the utility produced by nature is gratuitous, hence common, as is that produced by the instruments of work. It is gratuitous and common to a conduct [condition]: it is to bother, to do oneself the service of collecting it…” (Frédéric Bastiat, Complete Works, volume six, Harmonies économiques, Guillaumin et Cie, 1870, Paris, p. 186).

21 See our work in editing and translating a major work by Pannekoek: Lenin as philosopher, Moto proprio ed. 2015.

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