A Letter from Comrade Pannekoek (‘Der Kommunist’, KAPD, July 1920)
In this letter from the summer of 1920, Pannekoek criticizes the view of the Workers’ Union, how it was represented, among other things, in the program of the KAPD. This critique partly resurfaces in the positions of the G.I.C., eleven years later. With a sharpness unusual for him, Pannekoek continues by condemning the national Bolshevik and anti-Semitic positions of Laufenberg and Wolffheim.
Bussum, 5 July 1920
From my K. Horner-articles in the Hamburg paper, in which I commented on the Communist Party’s controversial issues last winter and spring, you know that I stand by your side in your opposition to the KPD. I also find this confirmed in the program (1) you sent me. There is only one point – and I want to add this immediately – on which I do not think the position set out in it can be sustained in the long term. It concerns the most controversial question of German development: the enterprise organization – probably the most difficult question because the old trade unions seem to be such solid mass organizations. You consider the enterprise organization as the organization of those enlightened workers – who are still a minority in an enterprise – who consciously recognize the reactionary role of the trade unions and turn away from them and replace them with a new form of organization based on the enterprise. With this we have two organizations of the forward striving, guiding, enlightened workers: 1. the Communist Party, 2. this revolutionary enterprise organization, and these two stand as a small group in the midst of the large, still inactive mass that clings to the old trade unions. That is how I understand the position you are taking. Now it seems to me – also in the light of the Russian experience – that this double organization is unnecessary in the long run; the members of the enterprise organization will be the same communists who generally distinguish themselves as a vanguard – there will be few workers who step out of the trade unions but do not become communists (perhaps some syndicalist groups, but there won’t be much that can be done with that, unless they are transferred to the communist point of view). In the long run, one will have: 1. as the basis of proletarian democracy, the assembly of all the workers in an enterprise who, through their representatives, enterprise councils, take the political and social leadership into their hands – the Soviets in Russia (and this organization per enterprise of the whole working class is mostly called the enterprise organization); 2. as the driving force of the conscious minority who, due to its clear insight and revolutionary will, will take the lead in revolutionary times: the communists. A second minority group, which consists almost exclusively of communists, will not be needed, it seems to me.
I present to you this different view because it may happen that the theorist living a long way off, precisely because he does not live in the midst of the compelling circumstances and can compare the developmental tendencies of different countries, is less under the influence of temporary circumstances and keeps a closer eye on the general and the lasting. But I do not ignore the fact that the special circumstances prevailing in Germany in particular may compellingly force your point of view upon you – and for this reason my remarks are not intended to dissuade you from your point of view as a “false” one, but at the most to prevent you from considering it too absolutely firm and too much as a general correct dogma, so that you may consider that a different point of view may prove necessary in the event of a change and development of circumstances. With the present power of the trade unions, for those who consider them a harmful counterrevolutionary power, hardly any other standpoint is possible – the method of the KPD and Radek not to step out of the trade unions in order to “stay with the masses” practically leads to not fighting against this power. But in revolutionary times it can and may change that the masses – even though the union leaders are already preparing to take control of the apparatus of the council system – no longer listen to the unions and [leave] them on a massive scale, but build up their workshop representations independently of and against the union leaders and officials (similar to what the workshop committees did in England during the war); (2) and then it would be harmful if, on the basis of this conception of the program, the revolutionary factory organizations kept themselves separate from such a development of a revolutionary mass force. But at least you who are in the middle of the movement and the masses will decide best what is right here.
I would also like to add that the way in which you conduct agitation in your newspaper seems to me to be correct both in principle and formally. Formally by the method of the factual enlightenment in contrast to the method of the “Rote Fahne”, calculated on momentary success and short term conquest, which resembles in every respect the old organs of the SPD before the war and lets feel the same contradiction between outer appearance and inner being, and in contrast to the Hamburg paper, which increasingly seeks the power of agitation in the denunciation of personal misconduct by its opponents – if a wrong policy often turns its supporters into crooks, then, conversely, a certain policy cannot be fought by being an invention of crooks: the politics of the KPD also has so many natural reasons, which lie in the tradition of the old SPD doctrine and in the difficult development, that completely honest, reasonable people can defend and actually do so. And in principle, the aberrations of the Hamburgers from a clear Marxist and revolutionary standpoint are so outrageous – first in the whole nationalist standpoint, then in the accusation that Levi had corrupted the whole revolution by a single act, recently in the anti-Semitic article: because Levi is a Jew, that’s why he plays the card of Jewish finance capital; all equally foolish – that they are hemming and harming the communist education of the masses (in my view) to the greatest possible extent, and in contrast to this, the Berlin standpoint contrasts all the more sharply in its value for the revolutionary Enlightenment. To me your criticism of national Bolshevism seems not only very correct, but also far too gentle; you underestimate the harm it does, since it undermines the basic ideas of communism in principle, and in my opinion you will not be able to remain together with Laufenberg and Wolffheim. If the KAPD is to become a leading, guiding force, giving the revolutionary masses in Germany a firm clarity, then a clear position is absolutely necessary, especially on the national question; and this must be determined by the party at the next Congress. I understand the difficulty with the great influence that L. and W. exert in Hamburg, and with the excellent agitation they did earlier, a year ago, in the Hamburg paper. But the discussion about it should be taken up again and again if possible; in these questions no uncertainty should remain, since it means the sharp demarcation against any reactionary bourgeois ideology. (3)
A few months ago I sent a large article (4) to Moscow on the general questions of revolutionary development trends and the tactics of communism; because of the difficulty of the connection it will only have arrived there recently, and it will therefore hardly be printed there before the international congress, i.e. it will no longer be able to exert any influence beforehand. Perhaps it will still have an effect afterwards, but if it were no longer to be printed there, it would be worth considering whether it should be published in Germany. Our tendency will also find good defenders in Moscow anyway; but I fear that opportunism will nevertheless be proclaimed as the international tactic of communism – a consequence of the slow development in the West, the external success of Russia which draws on all the wavering elements in the West, and the difficult internal situation of that country. In this case, we must prepare ourselves for opposition as a radical minority until the progress of the revolution in Central Europe gives a new impetus to development.
With friendly greetings
Source: “Der Kommunist, Flugzeitung der KAPD (Sachsen)” No. 30 (July 1920). Facsimile Scan: https://www.aaap.be/Pdf/Der-Kommunist-1920/Der-Kommunist-Sachsen-1920-030.pdf.
Pannekoek’s letter was adopted from the Berlin KAPD’s “Kommunistische Arbeiter Zeitung” (KAZ). The specific issue of the latter has not been preserved.
Transcription: F.C., December 2018. Translation and final editing: H.C., February 9, 2019. Emphasis according to the source.
1 See for the KAPD program of 1920: https://www.marxists.org/subject/left-wing/kapd/1920/programme.htm.
2 Probably Pannekoek refers to the shop-steward movement in Britain during the First World War.