Anton Pannekoek: Marxism and Darwinism (1909, 1914)

d) “Race”, “moral feelings” and revolutionary universalism of the proletariat

On other points Pannekoek’s analysis remained very insufficient. Condemning social Darwinism, the Dutch Marxist remained prisoner of a “racial” problematic which had invaded the ideological field of the time.

Pannekoek, like the social-democracy of his time, remained prisoner of a certain “racialist” conception, which was in no way racist, but tended to divide humanity into superior and inferior branches at the level of the domination of the productive forces.

This racialist theory abundantly served the social-imperialist tendencies of social democracy to justify colonial conquests by dispossessing, with a perfect “good conscience”, the “savages” of the immemorial rights of their communities. In an article published in the theoretical organ of the SPD in 1896, Eduard Bernstein, soon to be the leader of the revisionist movement, wrote the following edifying sentence: “We condemn and fight certain methods of subjugation of the Savages (“Wilden”), but not the fact that they are subjected and made to accept the rights of a superior culture.” (1)

With Pannekoek himself, the term “race” could easily be replaced by “population” or even “civilization”, if he had been able to take into account the first studies of scientific anthropology, which rose in the aftermath of the First World War.

In order to get out of social Darwinism, Pannekoek reveals himself to be more or less Kantian, implicitly taking up the idea of a moral man because he is cosmopolitan, even if he firmly combats the development of the neo-Kantian ideology in social democracy. (2)

But, on the path of the emancipation of humanity by the proletariat, it’s the social feelings that predominate. These, by becoming clearly conscious, take on “the character of moral feelings”. The struggle for socialism results in the emergence of a new morality, the morality of the proletariat putting an end to the “war of all against all” evoked by Hobbes in his Leviathan.

In the face of vulgar materialism, Pannekoek stresses the decisive importance of “intellectual work” with man, particularly with the producer, an idea taken up from Joseph Dietzgen:

“(…) human, so-called abstract, rational thinking is conceptual thinking and takes place through the medium of concepts. However, we can only indicate and retain concepts by means of names. Every deepening of thought, every expansion of knowledge begins by making a distinction by means of a name, either giving a new name or giving an old one a more precise meaning. Language is the body of thought, the material by means of which all human science can be built.” (3)

And to belittle the arrogance of capitalist man pretending that outside his “civilization” everything had previously been “barbarism”, Pannekoek takes pleasure in underlining that: “Our ability to think is not much better and higher today than it was with the Greeks and Romans and perhaps [with] the Germanic peoples (…)” (4)

It is more than ever up to the proletariat – the exploited class, the most numerous layer of human society – to demonstrate by its revolutionary praxis that it is indeed the sole heir of all thoughtful humanity since millennia. The exploited class must first of all exercise, socially and politically, the “critique of the weapons”, not only against organized capitalism, but against any form of bourgeois ideology that keeps it in the most total subjugation. Social Darwinism, which was once professed at the highest level of the capitalist state and its universities, is in reality professed under the most insidious form: that of an non-egalitarian “democracy”, in which a tiny minority of the holders of the power of money crushes the vast majority of manual and intellectual workers. Bourgeois “democracy” today constitutes the most formidable enemy of the proletariat. The proletariat can only be able to end it by constituting itself into revolutionary political parties, eventually into mass organizations at the world level: the WORKERS’ COUNCILS.

Ph. Bourrinet, October 31, 2019.



1 Ed. Bernstein, “Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie und die türkischen Wirren”, Die Neue Zeit n° 4, 1896-1897, p. 108-116. Bernstein’s position was strongly condemned by Karl Kautsky.

2 See our work: La Gauche communiste hollandaise, Moto Proprio, 2018.

3 Pannekoek, Marxism and Darwinism, Ch. 8: Tools, Thought and Language.

4 Idem, Ch. 9: Animal Organ and Human Tool.

Bibliographic data:

First published: Introduction à la brochure de Pannekoek : Marxismus und Darwinismus, 1914.

Translation according to the Moto Proprio edition of November 13, 2019.

Translation and annotations: F.C. & H.C.

Source of quotations from Pannekoek’s brochure: Ed Walker (2020), Marxism and Darwinism / Anton Pannekoek, 2020 (1909).

Last review: H.C., September 12, 2020.


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