World Revolution and Communist Tactics (1920) by Anton Pannekoek

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Introduction - Parliament is alien to the working class

Faced with another general election, and the calls by any number of so-called ‘socialists’ for the working class to chose between the capitalist parties standing for parliament, genuine communists have to reaffirm their total rejection of the whole ‘democratic’ circus.

In the previous issue of WR we published the Theses on Parliamentarism presented by the Communist Abstentionist Fraction of the Italian Socialist Party to the second congress of the Communist International in 1920. The Italian left around Bordiga was in the forefront of opposition to the CI’s tactic of ‘revolutionary parliamentarism’. But it was not alone. In Germany, the Communist Party originally rejected the parliamentary tactic; and when the left was expelled from the party and formed the KAPD, it continued to defend positions that were very close to those of the Italian left, as can be seen from this extract we are here publishing from the article ‘World Revolution and Communist Tactics’, by Anton Pannekoek, published in 1920.

It has often been argued by those who descend politically from the Italian left - the ‘Bordigist’ current - that the anti-parliamentary views of the Dutch/German left actually had nothing in common with the marxist analysis of the Abstentionist Fraction, and were more akin to anarchism’s ahistorical rejection of politics and authority in general. But as the extract shows, the clearest position of the Dutch/German left in 1920 was founded on sound marxist premises: recognition that parliamentary tactics had been useful during the ascendant period of capitalism, but were no longer so in the epoch of the proletarian revolution; overt support for the October revolution in Russia; unhesitating advocacy of the necessity for a communist party.

It is true that there was a tendency, even among the best elements of the German left, to pose ‘the masses’ against ‘the leaders’ in an abstract way that, in later years, was to degenerate into the excesses of councilism, with its rejection of the party and of centralised organisation. But the essential concern of Pannekoek’s text remains entirely valid and expresses a fundamental truth about the communist revolution: that it can only come about if the great mass of workers throw off their old habits of deference and passivity, and gain confidence in their own ability to overthrow capitalism and reorganise society.

The proletariat develops such confidence by struggling on its own class terrain, and through the decisive intervention of the communist vanguard in those struggles. The parliamentary terrain by contrast is completely alien to the working class in the period of capitalist decline, and any involvement in it can only serve to undermine proletarian identity and self-organisation. On this point there was complete harmony between the Italian and German left communists at the high point of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23.

Parliamentary activity and the trade-union movement were the two principal forms of struggle in the time of the Second International.

The congresses of the first International Working-Men’s Association laid the basis of this tactic by taking issue with primitive conceptions belonging to the pre-capitalist, petty-bourgeois period and, in accordance with Marx’s social theory, defining the character of the proletarian class struggle as a continuous struggle by the proletariat against capitalism for the means of subsistence, a struggle which would lead to the conquest of political power. When the period of bourgeois revolutions and armed uprisings had come to a close, this political struggle could only be carried on within the framework of the old or newly created national states, and trade-union struggle was often subject to even tighter restrictions. The First International was therefore bound to break up; and the struggle for the new tactics, which it was itself unable to practise, burst it apart; meanwhile, the tradition of the old conceptions and methods of struggle remained alive amongst the anarchists. The new tactics were bequeathed by the International to those who would have to put them into practice, the trade unions and Social-Democratic Parties that were springing up on every hand. When the Second International arose as a loose federation of the latter, it did in fact still have to combat tradition in the form of anarchism; but the legacy of the First International already formed its undisputed tactical base. Today, every communist knows why these methods of struggle were necessary and productive at that time: when the working class is developing within ascendant capitalism, it is not yet capable of creating organs which would enable it to control and order society, nor can it even conceive the necessity of doing so. It must first orientate itself mentally and learn to understand capitalism and its class rule. The vanguard of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party, must reveal the nature of the system through its propaganda and show the masses their goals by raising class demands. It was therefore necessary for its spokesmen to enter the parliaments, the centres of bourgeois rule, in order to raise their voices on the tribunes and take part in conflicts between the political parties.

Matters change when the struggle of the proletariat enters a revolutionary phase. We are not here concerned with the question of why the parliamentary system is inadequate as a system of government for the masses and why it must give way to the soviet system, but with the utilisation of parliament as a means of struggle by the proletariat. As such, parliamentary activity is the paradigm of struggles in which only the leaders are actively involved and in which the masses themselves play a subordinate role. It consists in individual deputies carrying on the main battle; this is bound to arouse the illusion among the masses that others can do their fighting for them. People used to believe that leaders could obtain important reforms for the workers in parliament; and the illusion even arose that parliamentarians could carry out the transformation to socialism by acts of parliament. Now that parliamentarianism has grown more modest in its claims, one hears the argument that deputies in parliament could make an important contribution to communist propaganda. (1) But this always means that the main emphasis falls on the leaders, and it is taken for granted that specialists will determine policy - even if this is done under the democratic veil of debates and resolutions by congresses; the history of social democracy is a series of unsuccessful attempts to induce the members themselves to determine policy. This is all inevitable while the proletariat is carrying on a parliamentary struggle, while the masses have yet to create organs of self action, while the revolution has still to be made, that is; and as soon as the masses start to intervene, act and take decisions on their own behalf, the disadvantages of parliamentary struggle become overwhelming.

As we argued above, the tactical problem is how we are to eradicate the traditional bourgeois mentality that paralyses the strength of the proletarian masses; everything that lends new power to the received conceptions is harmful. The most tenacious and intractable element in this mentality is dependence upon leaders, whom the masses leave to determine general questions and to manage their class affairs. Parliamentarianism inevitably tends to inhibit the autonomous activity by the masses that is necessary for revolution. Fine speeches may be made in parliament exhorting the proletariat to revolutionary action; it is not in such words that the latter has its origins, however, but in the hard necessity of there being no other alternative.

Revolution also demands something more than the massive assault that topples a government and which, as we know, cannot be summoned up by leaders, but can only spring from the profound impulse of the masses. Revolution requires social reconstruction to be undertaken, difficult decisions made, the whole proletariat involved in creative action - and this is only possible if first the vanguard, then a greater and greater number take matters in hand themselves, know their own responsibilities, investigate, agitate, wrestle, strive, reflect, assess, seize chances and act upon them. But all this is difficult and laborious; thus, so long as the working class thinks it sees an easier way out through others acting on its behalf- leading agitation from a high platform, taking decisions, giving signals for action, making laws - the old habits of thought and the old weaknesses will make it hesitate and remain passive.

While on the one hand parliamentarianism has the counter-revolutionary effect of strengthening the leaders’ dominance over the masses, on the other it has a tendency to corrupt these leaders themselves. When personal statesmanship has to compensate for what is lacking in the active power of the masses, petty diplomacy develops, whatever intentions the party may have started out with, it has to try and gain a legal base, a position of parliamentary power; and so finally the relationship between means and ends is reversed, and it is no longer parliament that serves as a means towards communism, but communism that stands as an advertising slogan for parliamentary politics. In the process, however, the communist party itself takes on a different character. Instead of a vanguard grouping the entire class behind it for the purpose of revolutionary action, it becomes a parliamentary party with the same legal status as the others, joining in their quarrels, a new edition of the old social democracy under new radical slogans. Whereas there can be no essential antagonism, no internal conflict between the revolutionary working class and the communist party, since the party incarnates a form of synthesis between the proletariat’s most lucid class-consciousness and its growing unity, parliamentary activity shatters this unity and creates the possibility of such a conflict: instead of unifying the class, communism becomes a new party with its own party chiefs, a party which falls in with the others and thus perpetuates the political division of the class. All these tendencies will doubtless be cut short once again by the development of the economy in a revolutionary sense; but even the first beginnings of this process can only harm the revolutionary movement by inhibiting the development of lucid class-consciousness; and when the economic situation temporarily favours counter-revolution, this policy will pave the way for a diversion of the revolution on to the terrain of reaction.

What is great and truly communist about the Russian revolution is above all the fact that it has awoken the masses’ own activity and ignited the spiritual and physical energy in them to build and sustain a new society. Rousing the masses to this consciousness of their own power is something which cannot be achieved all at once, but only in stages; one stage on this way to independence is the rejection of parliamentarianism. When, in December 1918, the newly formed Communist Party of Germany resolved to boycott the National Assembly, this decision did not proceed from any immature illusion of quick, easy victory, but from the proletariat’s need to emancipate itself from its psychological dependence upon parliamentary representatives - a necessary reaction against the tradition of social democracy - because the way to self-activity could now be seen to lie in building up the council system. However, one half of those united at that time, those who have stayed in the KPD, readopted parliamentarianism with the ebb of the revolution: with what consequences it remains to be seen, but which have in part been demonstrated already. In other countries too, opinion is divided among the communists, and many groups want to refrain from parliamentary activity even before the outbreak of revolution. The international dispute over the use of parliament as a method of struggle will thus clearly be one of the main tactical issues within the Third International over the next few years.

At any rate, everyone is agreed that parliamentary activity only forms a subsidiary feature of our tactics. The Second International was able to develop up to the point where it had brought out and laid bare the essence of the new tactics: that the proletariat can only conquer imperialism with the weapons of mass action. The Second International itself was no longer able to employ these; it was bound to collapse when the world war put the revolutionary class struggle on to an international plane. The legacy of the earlier internationals was the natural foundation of the new international: mass action by the proletariat to the point of general strike and civil war forms the common tactical platform of the communists. In parliamentary activity the proletariat is divided into nations, and a genuinely international intervention is not possible; in mass action against international capital national divisions fall away, and every movement, to whatever countries it extends or is limited, is part of a single world struggle.

(1). It was recently argued in Germany that communists must go into parliament to convince the workers that parliamentary struggle is useless - but you don’t take a wrong turning to show other people that it is wrong, you go the right way from the outset!