Trotsky, Pannekoek, Appel: Loyal proletarian fighters

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More than any other class in history, the proletariat is rich in great revolutionary figures, in devoted militants, tireless fighters, martyrs, thinkers and men of action. This is due to the fact that, unlike other revolutionary classes, which only fought against the reactionary classes in order to put in place their own system of domination, to defend their own egoistic interests as a privileged class, the proletariat has no privileges to win” (‘The Three L’s: Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht’, L’Etincelle, paper of the Gauche Communiste de France, 1946). The workers’ movement has so many exemplary militants that it is impossible to pay homage to all of them. Some of them however embody in a very particular way the passion for revolution, and here we want to salute the memory of three of them who went through the difficult test of the period of counter-revolution of the 1920s and 1930s, then of the Second World War. We are referring to Leon Trotsky, who was killed 70 years ago, Anton Pannekoek, who died 50 years ago, and Jan Appel, who died 25 years ago. Despite their very different histories and the often very deep divergences between them, despite the political errors they made, these ferocious proletarian fighters never ceased to dedicate their lives to the interests of their class.


At the beginning of the Second World War, Trotsky, after a life of ardent dedication to the cause of the working class, was killed by a pick-axe wielded by an agent of the GPU. Despite very serious political errors, Trotsky’s contribution to the workers’ movement is immense. Arrested many times during his life, expelled and exiled, he never stopped working for the perspective of revolution. As a very young propagandist for the social democratic paper Iskra, as an unrivalled orator, he was the president of the Petrograd Soviet in the revolution of 1905 in Russia. Although he had some important disagreements with Lenin, and though he had been forced into exile in the USA, he returned to Russia and joined the Bolshevik party in May 1917. He played a decisive role in the October revolution, and in the formation of the Red Army, which was revolutionary Russia’s rampart against the attacks of the counter-revolutionary White armies and of the Allied forces who worked together to crush the communist plague[1].

Trotsky played the particularly thankless role – since it was criticised from all sides – of chief negotiator of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany in March 1918, the result of which was to give the population of Russia a short breathing space. Trotsky was also at Lenin’s side in the work of the Communist International, many of whose founding documents he wrote. His History of the Russian Revolution is a fundamental reference for understanding the whole importance of this historic event. And Trotsky’s literary heritage, whether on the political, historical, cultural or theoretical level, is immense, a testament to Marx’s motto that “Nothing human is alien to me”.

Trotsky’s theory of the ‘permanent revolution’, despite the errors of analysis which went with it (such as the idea that the proletariat had to carry out the bourgeois revolution in countries where the bourgeoisie was too weak to vanquish feudalism) was still one of the sources of Stalin’s hatred for him. This was because the theory contained the fundamental idea that the revolutions of the 20th century could not stop at bourgeois and national tasks and was thus contrary to the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ and of ‘revolution by stages’ which was the basis of Stalinism in the 1920s and 30s.

In his later years, Trotsky, who used to say that “reality will not forgive a single theoretical error” defended many opportunist positions such as the policy of entryism into the social democratic parties, the United Front, the ‘working class’ nature of the Stalinist USSR – positions which the communist left rightly criticised in the 1930s. But he never joined the bourgeois camp, which the Trotskyists did do after his death. In particular, on the question of imperialist war, he still defended the traditional position of the revolutionary movement: the transformation of imperialist war into civil war. In the Manifesto, the so-called Alarm, of the 4th International which he wrote to take an unambiguous position on generalised imperialist war, we read:

The 4th International bases its policies not on the military fortunes of capitalist states but on the transformation of imperialist war into a war of the workers against the capitalists, for the overthrow of the ruling class in all countries, for the world socialist revolution” (Manifesto of the 4th International, May 29 1940). This is what the Trotskyists forgot and betrayed.

The more the world imperialist war intensified, the more the elimination of Trotsky became a central objective for the world bourgeoisie[2], and for Stalin in particular.

In order to buttress his power and develop the policies which made him the principal architect of the counter-revolution, Stalin had first eliminated numerous revolutionaries by sending them into the camps. They included many old Bolsheviks and companions of Lenin, those who had played a key role in the October revolution. But this was not enough. The most dangerous of the Bolsheviks, even though by now in exile, was still Trotsky. Stalin had already struck him hard by murdering his son Leon Sedov in Paris in 1938. Now it was Trotsky himself who had to be eliminated, And this murder had an even greater significance than the killing of the other Bolsheviks and members of the Russian communist left.

Anton Pannekoek

On 28 April 1960 Anton Pannekoek died after over 50 years of combat for the working class. At the beginning of the 20th century he had made his presence felt in the workers’ movement during the struggle against the revisionist current, initially within the Dutch movement as represented by Troelstra. Along with Gorter, he denounced all collaboration with liberal factions of the bourgeoisie in parliament: “neither a conciliatory attitude, nor an approach to the bourgeois parties, nor the abandonment of our demands are the means to obtaining anything. We can only do this by strengthening our organisations, in number and in class understanding and consciousness, so that they appear to the bourgeoisie as increasingly menacing and terrifying forces” (Pannekoek and Gorter, ‘Marxism and Revisionism’, Nieuw Tijd, 1909).

When he moved to Germany in 1906, to deliver a course at the SDP school, he soon got into conflict with the party leadership, with Kautsky among others, on the importance of autonomous mass action by the workers. In 1911, he was the first of the socialists to affirm, following Marx in the wake of the Paris Commune, that the workers’ struggle against capitalist domination had no choice but to destroy the bourgeois state: “The struggle of the proletariat is not simply a struggle against the bourgeoisie for state power: it is a struggle against sate power” (‘Mass Action and Revolution’, Neue Zeit, 1912, cited in Lenin’s State and Revolution).

With the outbreak of world war in 1914, Pannekoek took a firm position against the treason of the social democratic leaders in the Second International. During the war he became a sympathiser of the ISD (International Socialists of Germany) in Bremen and of the SDP in Holland, writing articles against the pro-war policy. In a letter to Van Ravensteyn, dated 22 October 1915, he explained that he had rallied to the initiatives of the left wing at Zimmerwald. Later on he expressed his unconditional solidarity with the Russian workers when they took power through the soviets in 1917, and he never ceased propagandising for the world revolution. “What we had been hoping for has now arrived. On 7 and 8 November, the workers and soldiers of Petrograd overthrew the Kerensky government. And it is probable that this revolution will extend to the whole of Russia. A new period is opening up, not only for the Russian revolution but for the proletarian revolution in Europe (‘The Russian Revolution’, de Nieuwe Tijd, 1917)

When the majority excluded from the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) founded, in April 1920 a new Party, the KAPD ( Communist Workers Party of Germany), Pannekoek was an inspiration to its programme. This document summarised the most important positions of the new period. Pannekoek (like Rosa Luxemburg until her murder in 1919) was, at the beginning of the 1920s, a critical but passionate defender of the October revolution.

But this did not prevent him from eventually drawing mistaken conclusions about the defeat of the 1917 revolution in Russia. He arrived at the view that the Bolsheviks had in fact led a bourgeois revolution. Why? Not only because, in the Russia of 1917, there were still vestiges of feudalism, of dispersed forms of petty bourgeois property, but also because Lenin had not understood the distinction between proletarian materialism and bourgeois materialism (see John Harper – alias Pannekoek – Lenin as Philosopher, 1938).

For any revolutionary today, the work of Pannekoek, despite these later errors, remains an essential reference point, if only because he was, along with other left communists, a bridge between the end of the social democratic Second International and the beginning of the Third, Communist International, a period which went from 1914 to 1919, and because he then continued to develop his theoretical contribution to the movement. As he said later: “Our task is principally a theoretical one: finding and indicating through study and discussion the best route for the action of the working class” (letter to Castoriadis of Socialisme ou Barbarie, 8 November 1953).

Jan Appel

On 4 May 1985, the last great figure of the Communist International, Jan Appel, died at the age of 95. This was a life lived for the liberation of humanity.

The revolutionary wave at the beginning of the 20th century was defeated. Thousands of marxist revolutionaries were killed in Russia and Germany; some even committed suicide. But despite this long night of counter-revolution, Jan Appel remained faithful to marxism, to the working class. He remained convinced that the proletarian revolution would still come.

Appel was formed and tempered in the revolutionary movement in Germany and Holland at the beginning of the 20th century. He fought side by side with Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Lenin, Trotsky, Gorter, Pannekok. He fought for the revolution on the streets of Germany in 1919. He was one of those who never betrayed the proletarian cause, a worthy representative of that anonymous mass of the proletariat’s past generations. Their historical struggle has always renounced the glorification of individuals or the search for glory and titles. Like Marx, Engels and so many others, Jan Appel did not seek fame in the sensational capitalist press.

But he also stood out in that anonymous mass of courageous revolutionaries produced by the revolutionary movement of the early 20th century. He left a trace which has allowed the revolutionaries of today to take up the torch. Jan Appel was capable of recognising those who, no less anonymous and for the moment reduced to a small minority, were once again carrying on the communist struggle. Thus we were extremely proud to welcome Jan Appel to the founding Congress of the ICC in Paris in 1976.

Born in 1890, Jan Appel began work very young in the Hamburg shipyards. As early as 1908, he was an active member of the SDP. In the turbulent years of the war, he took part in the discussions about the new questions facing the working class: the attitude to imperialist war and to the Russian revolution. This led him at the end of 1917 or beginning of 1918 to join the left radicals of Hamburg, who had taken up a very clear position on the war and the revolution. In July 1917 the IKD in Hamburg had issued an appeal calling on all revolutionary workers to work for an independent party opposed to the reformist and opportunist politics of the SDP majority. Pushed forward by the workers’ struggles at the end of 1918, he joined Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartakusbund and, after the unification of different groups into the KPD, took up a position of responsibility for the Hamburg section.

On the basis of his active participation in the struggle since 1918, and of his organisational talents, the participants at the founding congress of the KAPD chose Appel and Franz Jung to represent the new party at the second congress of the Third International in Moscow. Their role was to negotiate adhesion to the International and to discuss the treacherous attitude of the KPD Centrale during the Ruhr uprising. To get to Moscow, they had to lead a mutiny on a ship. Once there, they had discussions with Zinoviev, the president of the Communist International, and with Lenin. They held long discussions on the basis of the manuscript of Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, refuting the accusation among other things of syndicalism (i.e. the rejection of the party) and of nationalism.

Several more trips to Moscow were needed before the KAPD was admitted into the CI as a sympathising organisation, participating on this basis at the Third Congress of the CI in n1921.

Appel was active wherever the KAPD or the parallel ‘Workers’ Union’, the AAUD, sent him. He was responsible for the AAU’s weekly Der Klassenkampf in the Ruhr, where he remained until November 1923.

At the Third Congress of the CI in 1921, Appel, Meyer, Scwab and Reichenbach were delegated to conduct the final negotiations in the name of the KAPD and to oppose the growing opportunism of the CI. They tried in vain, along with delegates from Bulgaria, Hungary, Luxemburg, Mexico, Spain, Britain, Belgium and the USA , to form a left opposition. At the end of the Congress, ignoring the sarcasms of Bolshevik or KPD delegates, Jan Appel, under the pseudonym Hempel, underlined some of the questions posed for the world revolution: “the Russian comrades are not supermen and they need a counter-weight. This counterweight should be a Communist International which has liquidated all tactics of compromise, of parliamentarism and using the old trade unions”.

Until the end of his days, Jan Appel was convinced that “only the class struggle is important”. We continue his fight.   MW 29/9/10


[1]. The harsh difficulties faced by the Bolshevik party and the working masses at both the economic and military level were to result in the justification of grave errors: the massacre of the insurgent workers at Kronstadt in 1921 and the military offensive against the Makhno movement in the Ukraine. While certain parts of the Bolshevik party correctly opposed these errors, Trotsky was not one of them, and was indeed one of the main artisans of these acts of repression.


[2]. Robert Coulondre, the ambassador of France to the Third Reich, provides an eloquent testimony to this in his description of his last meeting with Hitler, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Hitler was boasting about the pact he had just signed with Stalin. He outlined a grandiose panorama of his coming military triumphs. In reply the French ambassador tried to appeal to his reason and spoke to him of the social tumult, the risk of revolution that would be brought about by a long and murderous war, resulting in the destruction of all the belligerent governments: “You think of yourself as the victor, but have you thought about another possibility: that the victor could be Trotsky?”