From Sentiment into Clear Knowledge – Anton Pannekoek

From Sentiment into Clear Knowledge - Pannekoek

This article is composed of extracts of two letters (dated February 27 and April 7, 1947) Anton Pannekoek wrote to the British Marxist and Independent Labour Party member Frank Ridley, who Pannekoek was in contact with in hopes of having council communist literature, including his Workers’ Councils, published and distributed in England and the wider English-speaking world. Only minor edits were made for readability. Handwritten copies of the full letters can be found on the Association Archives Antonie Pannekoek (Map 108/18).

Submitted by robynkwinters on August 26, 2023

[I]n the present times, now that we see in nearly all countries socialist parties assisting or leading in establishing stronger dictatorial power of the State over production and working class, the name “socialist” begins to assume an ominous sound;1 and on the other hand this name and doctrine (cherished for so many good traditions) may withhold many militants from approaching with open mind the new wild and “unofficial” actions of the workers and the ideas emerging from them. If the class is put into the forefront it means that we stand open-minded before the new conditions and new phenomena of class-fight, and build our theoretical insight upon them.


We, looking from the workers’ viewpoint, see matters different, because we know of, and rely upon, the forces lying hidden in the working class. But these must be awakened and brought to consciousness; they remain inactive if it stays staring at Parliament and Trade Unionism. The workers must know how to build up and organize production themselves, by constructive work from below, by strenuous exertion of themselves and their organs. This holds for all Western Europe (in a wider sense for all the world). Everywhere the workers, even the members, have their misgivings about socialist and communist party politics, they have lost confidence and enthusiasm, but do not know their own forces and what other ways are open. They fight, in spontaneous strikes, against capitalist oppression, with endurance, courage, and a fine spirit of solidarity, but they do not know who this fight and this spirit will open the way to self-won freedom. They fight, so to say, with closed eyes. Thus it is a matter of first necessity that new views are presented to them, that they see the significance of what by intuition and necessity they are doing already (to take away the doubts when for their strikes they are attacked from all sides), and see that they can build up the new order saving society. In the third part of "Workers’ Councils” it is said that, if anywhere, then in England a conquest of power might be possible by a succession of partial steps; because of the character of the English ruling class to seek for practical solutions in every emergency and to yield before the breaking point is reached. But this will depend on the working class, whether it will be equal to its task. Since all propaganda needs time to spread and have effect in new convictions, it is necessary not to lose time, and to make haste. We cannot expect that the working class, in its present weakness, will be able to prevent a third world war by thwarting it by revolutionary counteractions; but after the devastation it will stand before the choice of building up their free world, or fall into a deep slavery under a united world capitalism.

You speak of libertarian socialism as the trend of the ILP [Independent Labour Party] in the [future]. What was called by that name till now mostly was a sentiment rather than clear knowledge, a sentiment of distrust against party-rule and State-socialism. These goals belong to the time of ascendancy of capitalism (say, till 1910), when the workers had to fight for their place within this system. Now the time seems ripe for a new phase with new goals, self-rule and mastery of the workers over production (you speak of cross-roads). But theory is still entirely dominated by the old doctrine; nearly all socialists and communists believe that State-socialism and Parliamentarism and Trade Unionism are prescribed by Marxism, by the science of Marx and Engels. This belief we have to refute. Now that the working class has to solve the problem how to combine freedom with social organisation, the libertarian ideas have to develop from sentiment into clear knowledge, based on substantial economic theory. So we want books, materials for study, wherein it is laid down. The GIC [Group of lnternational Communists] leaning upon theoretical work in Holland and German experience, has done much to provide a solid economic and social basis, and it is of great importance that the English speaking world of labour should get access to such international literature. The books should serve not so much to convert or convince present leading spokesmen, who are mostly clinging to traditional ideas, but chiefly to instruct the upgrowing next generation that has to do the practical work and fight. We want books to be published, to be widely circulated, in order that the young workers can read and find out truth after their own judgement; must we suffer that by lack of means, against the ruling doctrines that by their power and money are able to make broad propaganda, the voice of revolutionary fight for free society cannot be heard? After and besides “Workers’ Councils” we know of more books and pamphlets that should be translated and published in English, now the chief world-language. Could not you bring together a kind of Combined Socialist Publishing House, by appealing to groups and persons of different groups or trends, but all interested in spreading wider knowledge on workers’ problems, socialism, liberty, social development; something as Charles H. Kerr was in Chicago?


Here also I read of the Paris conference of socialist groups.2 If it must serve to exchange ideas it will have its utility. I do not go; I am no conference-man; I can better express my ideas by writing. I fear that at present socialist powers are too weak to influence really European politics. When the workers in every shop, every enterprise, every country will have established their class-unity in the fight against capitalist power, then their international unity will establish itself without any difficulty. So I see for myself the chief task in helping them—through theoretical explication and understanding—to find their way of unity and class-fight.

  • 1[Similarly, Pannekoek was apprehensive about the word “Marxism,” telling Paul Mattick in a letter dated June 11, 1946: “The science of Marx, the true lasting part of his work, remains the basis of all our opinions and thoughts. But, to put it crudely: the word marxism should disappear from our propaganda. Everything we tell is based upon what we see and every worker can see.” – Ed.]
  • 2[The Second International Conference for the United Socialist States of Europe that was held in Paris June 21-22, 1947. Chaired by Bob Edwards of the Independent Labour Party (UK), attendees came from various socialist parties and groups from over a dozen European countries to discuss the establishment of a unified socialist Europe. – Ed.]