German/Dutch left is not a branch of anarchism

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At the end of 1998 a pamphlet was brought out by an anarchist publishing house, entitled Council Communism and Autonomous Workers' Struggles. It was dedicated to Cajo Brendel, the last living representative of the German-Dutch left (1). As well as an interview, a bibliography, and several extracts from texts written by Brendel, the collection also contains a number of short extracts from 'basic texts of council communism' by Anton Pannekoek, Otto Ruhle, Hank Canne Meijer and Paul Mattick, as well as a short historical introduction on the origins of this curron on the origins of this current. Furthermore, this pamphlet is in continuity with a previous one published in 1990 by the same publishers, containing 'libertarian texts' by Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek and Henriette Roland Holst.

Behind an apparently benign interest in the council communist current, or in the 'councilist' personality Cajo Brendel, the real aim of these pamphlets can be seen clearly in the first words of the introduction:

"The history of anarchism contains a number of sometimes quite important splits with the marxists. There is at least one exception however. In the 1920s we saw the appearance of council communism as a response to Bolshevik state capitalism. Council communist positions developed in direct relation to the autonomous class struggle and the formation of workers' councils outside the state, party, or leaders. They seem to present important points of convergence with anarchism" .

Council communism is thus presented as a libertarian break with the marxist tradition. In fact, by means of the commentaries that appear throughout these collections, and of a skilful selection of the extracts which mix up the authors mentioned above with 'libertarians' like Lehning and Reeves, the following ideas are sold to the reader:

  • council communism since Luxemburg and Pannekoek, in brief the whole of the German-Dutch left current, represents a radical break both with social democracy and with the Bolsheviks and their bourgeois revolution: ".. the authors mentioned underlined that the bases for the development and perfecting of a terrorist state dictatorship were already in place with the first Bolsheviks" (1990 pamphlet, p 99-100);
  • like the anarchists, these authors glorified the autonomous struggle of the workers which is against any political party, any leaders or political control over society. They are thus part of a "common fund of libertarian thought which considers that socialism, democracy and liberty are indivisible" (ibid p 97);
  • finally, the same traditions, faced with the bankruptcy of capitalism today, represent an alternative to "old responses which have shown themselves to be false", thanks to an 'anti-dogmatic' cocktail made up of Marx and Bakunin, 'libertarian' socialism and anarchist spontaneity (ibid p 104-5).

The German-Dutch left was an integral part of the international revolutionary movement

The central aim of this tendentious selection of short extracts, removed from their real context, is above all to convince the reader that these 'prophets' of council communism had made a total break with the rest of the 'old' revolutionary movement, particularly Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In fact nothing could be more false and it is no accident that the historical introduction, which brings in the combat against opportunism and reformism within the Second International, moves rapidly through the period of war and revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. The events of this period are clear witness to the fact that the militants of the German-Dutch left (such as Gorter, Pannekoek and Roland Holst) were, like the Bolsheviks, an integral part of the marxist wing of the workers' movement which was in the vanguard of the gigantic struggle waged by the working class and its political organisations in this period:

  • in the struggle against the barbarism of war and the betrayal of the social-chauvinists in 1914. Faced with the unleashing of generalised imperialist war and the treason of the main socialand the treason of the main social democratic parties which voted for war credits and called for a 'Sacred Union' with their own bourgeoisies, the marxist left within these parties organised the resistance. From 1914 onwards the positions adopted by Gorter and Pannekoek went in exactly the same direction as the analyses developed by the Bolsheviks, in particular in the definition of the war as imperialist and in the proclamation of the death of the International and of the need for a new one. Very soon, the terrible sacrifices demanded of the workers provoked a wider resistance. In March 1915 Otto Ruhle and Karl Liebknecht voted against war credits in the Reichstag; in September 1915 the Zimmerwald conference took place, with the full support of Luxemburg, Gorter and Pannekoek, and attended by Roland Holst. Through its writings, through its struggle both in Holland and Germany and on the international level, the German-Dutch marxist left was, alongside the Bolsheviks, one of the first currents to engage in a merciless struggle against the opportunists and conciliators, to work actively towards the regroupment of revolutionary forces. Alongside figures like Lenin, Bukharin and Radek, Luxemburg, Pannekoek and Gorter drew out the practical implications of the situation in order to preon in order to prepare the revolutionary struggle ahead;

  • in the struggle to extend the international revolutionary wave and to constitute the Communist International after 1917. The German-Dutch left unreservedly supported the revolutionary character of Soviet Russia and the internationalism of the Bolsheviks. The Dutch left in particular was foremost in introducing and propagating Lenin's conceptions in western Europe, via Herman Gorter's pamphlet The World Revolution, which appeared in 1918. Fully convinced of the international character of the revolutionary wave that began in Russia, the German-Dutch left took an active part in the insurrectionary movement in Germany and the rest of Europe, as well as in the constitution of the Communist International; "The world war and the revolution it has engendered have shown clearly that there is only one tendency in the workers' movement which is really leading the workers towards communism. Only the extreme left of the social democratic parties, the marxist fractions, the party of Lenin in Russia, of Bela Kun in Hungary, of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, have found this path" (Gorter, The Victory of Marxism, 1920);

  • in the resistance against the development of opportunism within the CI at the beginning of the 1920s. With the retreat in the revolutionary wave, which was marked in particular by the defeat of the insurrectionary movement in Germany between 1919 and 1923, and the resulting isolation of the Russian fortress, opportunist tendencies took root in the Russian Communist party and the International, along with a growing propensity to subordinate the policies of the CI to the interests of the Russian state. Against this process of degeneration, which was to end in the death of the CI as a proletarian instrument when it adopted the thesis of 'socialism in one country', a bitter resistance developed within the International, and then increasingly outside it as expulsions from the CI and its parties multiplied. Again, while the German-Dutch left undoubtedly played a leading role in this combat, as witness Gorter's Reply To Lenin, which was largely inspired by Pannekoek's World Revolution and Communist Tactics (1920), it was by no means the only current fighting against the degeneration. The whole marxist left, in Russia, Britain, Bulgaria and above Italy around Bordiga, tenaciously defended the acquisitaciously defended the acquisitions of the revolution.

In the 1930s and afterwards, these communist lefts continued their determined opposition to the triumphant Stalinist counter-revolution, seeking to keep alive the political lessons of the revolutionary struggle lessons about parliamentary and trade union tactics, the role of the party and its relationship with the councils. These tiny revolutionary minorities, working in an extremely difficult situation marked by the domination of Stalinism, fascism and democracy, held onto internationalist positions. This was particularly the case with the groups from the German-Dutch left tradition, like the Group of International Communists (GIC) around Canne Meijer, Paul Mattick's group in the US, or the Communistenbond Spartacus after the second world war (of which Brendel was a member). But once again this was in no way a specificity of the German-Dutch left because other proletarian currents also stayed loyal to internationalist positions, for example the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left in the 1930s or the Gauche Communiste de France at the end of the second world war.

Faced with all the attempts to divide the different marxist fractions of the workers' movement, to set them against each other, we insiset them against each other, we insist on their fundamental unity as an active part of the dynamic of the class struggle. Against the abstract and mechanical opposition put forward in extracts taken out of their context, we aim to re-state the real conditions in which polemics and debates took place in the workers' movement, i.e. within one single camp the camp of the proletariat and of communism, to which belonged both the marxist left within the Second International and all the left fractions of the CI which fought against the Stalinist counter-revolution and remained faithful to internationalist principles. This is the method that marxism has always tried to apply and it is in total contrast to the abstract and timeless approach of the anarchists.

The development of revolutionary marxism in opposition to anarchism

The attempt to connect these revolutionaries with anarchism can only be accomplished through an ahistorical conjuring trick. The real development of the class struggle reveals the absurdity of this 'anti-dogmatic' cocktail that mixes Marx with Bakunin.

The development of the Socialist parties and the creation of the Second International was an important step forward for the workers' movement. When reformism took an increasing hold over these parties, anarcho-syndicalism was certainly the expression of a proletarian reaction against it, but its attachment to the old ' revolution at any time' approach made it incapable of understanding the historic origins of the opportunist gangrene in the workers' movement, while its traditional opposition to 'politics' prevented it from defending the political organisations of the proletariat and encouraged illusions in a purely 'economic' revolution led by the unions, by-passing the necessity for the working class to take political power. During this period the really fruitful work of opposition to the development of opportunism within the workers' movement was carried out by the revolutionary left around Lenin, Luxemburg and Pannekoek, who remained loyal to the marxist tradition.

In this context, the outbreak of the first world war was more than ever a test of truth, not only for the right wing of social democracy which betrayed the working class, but also for a good number of anarchist organisations which, like Kropotkin and the French CGT, fell into 'anarcho-chauvinism'. As for those who opposed the war, like Monatte and Rosmer in France, they were only able to develop a consistent struggle against the war by linking up with the vigorous internationalist action of the marxistionalist action of the marxist left and by rallying to the Russian revolution.

Thus, in Holland, faced among other things with the anti-militarism tinged with pacifism of the current around the anarchist Domela Niewenhuis, the left intransigently defended internationalist positions against any idea of pacifism, insisting that the primary task of the SDP (the socialist left which has been excluded from the main social democratic party, the SDAP, in 1909) was the struggle for revolution (resolution proposed by Gorter in the name of the Bussum section at the Utrecht congress in June 1915): "If one day the workers have the power in their hands, they must defend it with arms in their hand as well" And in an article from De Tribune on 19 June 1915 Pannekoek underlined that "it is only as part of the general struggle against capitalism that the struggle against militarism can lead anywhere".

Finally, faced with the tragic degeneration of the Russian revolution and the emergence of the Stalinist nightmare, it wasn't anarchism that was able to explain what had happened and draw the lessons for the struggles of the future, but once again the marxist left: the Italian left around the review Bilan but also the German-Dutch left. And it did so by clearlytch left. And it did so by clearly demarcating itself from anarchism, in particular during the events in Spain which saw the anarchists openly offering their services to the bourgeois state. Far from providing a libertarian socialist cocktail, the GIC, like Bilan, showed throughout the war in Spain how this new ordeal by fire had led the anarchists into the camp of the bourgeoisie. The 'anti-statists' became government parties, "playing the same role in Spain that the left social democrats, the 'Independents' had played in Germany" (PIC no 12, organ of the GIC, 1937).

And in response to certain anarchists 'criticisms' of the actions of the CNT, the GIC underlined how much this was not a betrayal of anarchist principles but their logical outcome:

"the reproaches made by foreign anarchists that the CNT has betrayed its principles is not valid. The CNT could do nothing else with principles that are detached from reality; it had to join one or other of the forces present" (Rate-Korrepondenz no. 22, 1937).

What must be said is that leaving aside the fact that although this or that anarchist may have defended correct positions, and marxist groups may have made this or that error of analysis, what fundamentally distinguishes marxism from ally distinguishes marxism from anarchism is that the former is able to apply a historical and dynamic analysis which makes it possible to grasp the real movement of the proletarian struggle and to draw all its lessons, as opposed to the abstract, timeless and idealist principles of the anarchist approach.

A combat within the proletarian camp

Does this mean that there were no divergences between these great figures and organisations of the revolutionary movement? Of course not. Does it mean that there is nothing to criticise in the positions of the German-Dutch left? Again no.

The ICC has never avoided criticising the opportunist tendencies within council communism, particularly in its later forms (see 'The bankruptcy of councilism' in IR 37). Thus, it has shown how, under the terrible pressure of the counter-revolution, within the German-Dutch left more and more concessions were made on the political role of the proletarian party. Concretely this expressed itself in a retreat towards working in isolated circles and in the retrospective assimilation of the Bolshevism of 1917 with the Stalinism of 1927; concessions were also made to economism, reducing the revolutionary process to a question of forms of economic organisation for the workers, and of the management of the factories by these forms. The ICC has also never abstained from denouncing the patent opportunism of the group Daad en Gedachte which, by putting into question the importance of theoretical reflection as an instrument for defining the perspectives of the proletarian struggle, has sunk more and more into a total denial of the role of revolutionaries, and now is at risk of disappearing definitively into the void since it has suspended publication of its review.

But in order to deal with these ambiguities and opportunist tendencies, it is necessary to know who we are criticising and to understand our common political heritage. Because what unites us is a common class combat, an internationalist combat against all the forces of the bourgeoisie. Council communism is a current within the workers' movement. This is why we say 'hands off!' to all those who are seeking to recuperate the heritage of the German-Dutch left.


(1) On Cajo Brendel, see the article in WR 228 (and the rectification in this issue).