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Anton Pannekoek

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The original publication details for this article by Pannekoek are given in the translators introduction below.

This translation and the introduction first appeared in Capital & Class Number 1. (Spring 1977). The translator is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and writes regularly for their paper Socialist Standard. Some articles by him can be found on the World Socialist Movement website. With John Crump he wrote State Capitalism : The Wages System Under New Management, London, 1986

Pannekoek's article is a critique of Henryk Grossman's book Das Akkumulations - und Zusammenbruchsgesetz des Kapitalischen Systems. At the time this translation was first published this book had not been translated into English. An abridged version now has been - The Accumulation of Capital and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System, Pluto Press, London, 1992


by Adam Buick

The following article originally appeared in German in 1934 as an unsigned article in Ratekorrespondenz (No. I, June 1934) and was published in Holland by the Groups of International Communists [1]. It was in fact written by Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960), then world renowned Professor of Astronomy at the University of Amsterdam. Pannekoek was a life-long Marxist (and in fact wrote a book applying the materialist conception of history to the history of astronomy [2]) and at an earlier period had been a very active member of the Social Democratic and Left Communist movements in both Germany and his native Holland. As a scientist he was interested in dialectical materialism as a theory of science and his two writings known in the English-speaking world before the first world war were his 1902 introduction to Joseph Dietzgen's The Positive Outcome of Philosophy and his very popular pamphlet Marxism and Darwinism (1909). His later criticism of Lenin's distortions of dialectical materialism, Lenin As Philosopher (1938), has recently been republished in English. [3]

Pannekoek placed himself on the left wing of the Social Democratic movement, being an opponent not only of revisionism but also of the `orthodox' centre represented by Kautsky. Even before the first world war he had come to see the futility of the traditional Social Democratic policy of merely trying to win an electoral majority on the basis of promises to reform capitalism, favouring instead conscious mass action by the working class as a whole. He was thus ready to support the appeals of the Bolsheviks after the Russian revolution to split from the Social Democrats and form separate Communist Parties. He had been a founding member of the Social Democratic Party in Holland, a breakaway from the orthodox Social Democrats there in 1909 which became in 1918 the Communist Party of Holland. His views, however, were never those of orthodox Bolshevism. He took their talk about there having been a 'soviet' (= workers' council) revolution in Russia literally and urged the working class to have nothing at all to do with parliament or trade unions and to organise instead into autonomous workers' councils in order to establish Socialism, a view he maintained for the rest of his life [4].

People with such views were one of the constituent groups of the Communist Parties in most countries, but they were in a minority and were soon overwhelmed by the most important of the other constituent groups, the radicalised Social Democrats who brought with them some of their reformist illusions. In the disputes which broke out between those two groups over the attitude the new parties should take towards parliament and the trade unions, Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership backed the latter group and in 1920 `Left Communists' like Pannekoek were singled out for attack by Lenin in a special pamphlet Left wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (Pannekoek is the `K. Horner' frequently criticised by Lenin). The Left Communists replied by accusing Lenin of opportunism and began to realise the state capitalist nature of the Bolshevik regime which they soon ceased to support.

Pannekoek was associated with the `opposition movement' of the KAPD -- Kommunistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, the `Communist Workers Party of Germany' -- he mentions it in the opening paragraph of his article and it was very active in Germany in the early twenties (it is said that at one time it had some 50,000 members). When the post-war working class revolt and discontent in Germany abated, Pannekoek settled down to an academic career as an astronomer. But he remained a Marxist and continued to identify himself with the Left Communist tradition, as represented by such journals as Ratekorrespondenz, and its Dutch and English language equivalents and successors, to which he contributed the occasional article like the present one. Pannekoek refers in the final section of his article to this tradition as "the new workers' movement", i.e., those who were opposed to both reformist Social Democracy and state capitalist Bolshevism (somewhat grandiose terminology, since by the 1930s it only consisted of a few hundred individuals). They also called themselves `Council Communists' as opposed to the `Party Communism' represented by Stalin and Trotsky.

Despite the fact that the KAPD and most of `the new workers' movement' adhered to the view that capitalism would one day break down economically, Pannekoek himself always opposed this view. He was one of the first to criticise (in the Bremer Burger-Zeitung of 29 and 30 January 1913) the theory of economic collapse put forward by Rosa Luxemburg in her book The Accumulation of Capital ( 1912). He repeats his 1913 criticism of Luxemburg in this article, but the bulk of it is devoted to a criticism of the rival theory of collapse put forward in 1929 by Henry Grossmann [5]. Whereas Luxemburg held that capitalism must eventually break down through a lack of markets, Grossman held that the cause of capitalism's inevitable economic break-down would be a lack of profits.

These opposing views still divide those who consider themselves Marxists. Pannekoek, however, had a third, almost unique [6] , and rarely heard, point of view: both Luxemburg and Grossmann were wrong; capitalism would never collapse for purely economic reasons; capitalism would only come to an end - 'collapse' if you like - through the conscious action of the working class. Pannekoek's view, which is here translated into English for the first time [7] , is thus still pertinent today when, as in the 1930s, there are may who treat Marxian economics as a separate academic discipline quite independent of the activity of the working class or who, as Pannekoek points out, only see working class activity as a battering ram to displace the present ruling class and install in their place a vanguard party, whose economic experts would attempt to plan the economy in accordance with the reproduction schema they had invented.

It can also be added that, as astronomy is essentially a theoretical science involving mathematical computations, Pannekoek writes here not just as a Marxist but as a Marxist who has at the same time a profound knowledge of mathematics. (which in fact he also taught at the University of Amsterdam).

The quotations from Grossmann are translated from Pannekoek's article and the references are to the original 1929 Leipzig edition which he used. The quotations from Volumes I and III of Marx's Capital are from the Moscow FLPH editions of 1961 and 1959 respectively.

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[1] Republished in Gruppe Internationaler Kommunisten Hollands, Rowohlt, Reinbek-Hamburg, 1971, and in Die Zusammenbruchstheorie des Kapitalismus der Revolutionares Subjekt, Karin Kramer, Berlin, 1973.

[2] A History of Astronomy, London, 1961; originally published in Dutch in 1951.

[3] Lenin as Philosopher, Merlin Press, London 1975.
John Gray note : available online here

[4] See his Workers Councils (1946), first published in English in Australia in 1948; republished in America in 1970 by Root and Branch, Cambridge, Mass.
John Gray note : available online here

[5] Das Akkumulations - und Zusammenbruchsgesetz des Kapitalischen Systems, Leipzig, 1929; republished in 1967 in Archiv Sozialistischer Literatur, Frankfurt. Not yet translated into English.
John Gray note : Since this introduction was written an english translation of Grossmans book has been published in English - The Accumulation of Capital and the Breakdown Theory, Pluto Press, London, 1992

[6] The only others to put forward a similar theory were the SPGB in Britain in their pamphlet Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse, published in 1932.

[7] A French translation is published as an appendix to La Gauche Communiste en Allemagne (1918-1921), by Denis Authier and Jean Barrot, Payot, Paris, 1976.

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