Deviations, part 1: the Castoriadis-Pannekoek exchange

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi's introduction to a series of letters between Anton Pannekoek and Cornelius Castoriadis.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 27, 2013

In early 1953 Cajo Bren­del, a Dutch coun­cil com­mu­nist affil­i­ated with a group known as Spar­ta­cus, vis­ited the mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie (Social­ism or Bar­barism) in Paris. As mem­bers of a mil­i­tant orga­ni­za­tion harshly mar­gin­al­ized by the most blis­ter­ing win­ters of the cold war, Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, Claude Lefort, and their com­rades under­stand­ably hoped to make con­tact with other com­mu­nist ten­den­cies crit­i­cal of the offi­cial cur­rents. Delighted to dis­cover that Anton Pan­nekoek, that vet­eran com­mu­nist whose dis­sent­ing tracts had drawn the ire of none other than Lenin him­self, was quite close to Spar­ta­cus, the group decided to sup­ply Bren­del with a copy of every issue of the jour­nal, eleven in all, to pass along to the revered the­o­rist. Pan­nekoek, who read them with excite­ment, wrote later to Bren­del the French group showed much promise despite its ques­tion­able posi­tion on the party ques­tion. On Novem­ber 8, 1953, he wrote a let­ter to Cas­to­ri­adis, which was later pub­lished, along with a response, in num­ber 14 (April-June 1954) of the journal.

Span­ning an entire gen­er­a­tion, a lin­guis­tic divide, and a geo­graph­i­cal shift, the epis­to­lary encounter between Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis in many ways marks the inter­nal trans­for­ma­tion of the ultra-left. But the ultra-left, far from a his­tor­i­cal relic, is mak­ing head­lines again. The appear­ance of a mys­te­ri­ous lit­tle book called The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion on book­shelves across the coun­try in 2009 piqued an already grow­ing inter­est. Not only did Michael Moore name the “left­ist call-to-arms man­i­festo” as his most recent read in an inter­view with the Hol­ly­wood Reporter, the tract even climbed to the top of Ama­zon best­seller list after Glenn Beck told Fox News view­ers it was “the most evil book I’ve read in a long, long time.” But this pam­phlet was only, if we may lapse into pop soci­ol­ogy, the tip­ping point for a resur­gence of for­got­ten ten­den­cies, obscure jour­nals, and pre­vi­ously unheard of milieus, which are sud­denly being dis­cussed every­where from aca­d­e­mic con­fer­ences to national broad­cast­ing chan­nels. It’s likely that the “Invis­i­ble Com­mit­tee” that wrote The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion grew out of Tiqqun, a French group that offi­cially dis­banded in 2001 after releas­ing two issues of its epony­mous jour­nal. Tiqqun itself has been redis­cov­ered after the infa­mous Tarnac affair in 2008, when for­mer mem­bers of the group were arrested for sab­o­tag­ing train lines.

The appear­ance of new works and trans­la­tions by groups like Tiqqun, includ­ing Tro­ploin, Théorie Com­mu­niste, Aufheben, and Echanges et Mou­ve­ment, reflect the close engage­ment of the ultra-left with the ten­den­cies and sen­si­bil­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary activist move­ments. An arti­cle in The Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion traced the “intel­lec­tual roots” of Occupy Wall Street to the anar­chist David Grae­ber, who invoked the lan­guage of the ultra-left in his descrip­tion of the polit­i­cal impor­tance of the gen­eral assem­bly: “One of the things that rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies have learned over the course of the 20th cen­tury is that the idea of the ends jus­ti­fy­ing the means is deeply prob­lem­atic… You can’t cre­ate a just soci­ety through vio­lence, or free­dom through a tight rev­o­lu­tion­ary cadre. You can’t estab­lish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same.“1

But this par­a­digm, though it is thor­oughly grounded in the present, nev­er­the­less has deep roots in the past. All of the jour­nals cir­cu­lat­ing today would deny such a strong link to their own ances­tors; they admit the influ­ence of the ultra-left, but none describe them­selves as ultra-leftists. Most believe they have made a clean break with this his­tory, and usu­ally only employ the term as an epi­thet for those still thought to be trapped in anti­quated pol­i­tics. They are on poor terms with each other, and almost cer­tainly would not con­sider them­selves to be part of the same con­stel­la­tion of theories.

Although they have their dis­agree­ments, this dis­sen­sion only con­ceals a shared unity that unsur­pris­ingly orig­i­nates from the com­mon her­itage they all seem intent on repress­ing. Many of the defin­ing prin­ci­ples of the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left per­sist, and their pecu­liar com­bi­na­tion of blind­ness and insight bears the marks of their prog­en­i­tors. Their shared empha­sis on pro­le­tar­ian self-activity, their will­ing­ness to delib­er­ately con­flate means and ends, their ten­dency to elide the moment of strat­egy, their demand for the abo­li­tion of a tran­si­tion period, and their ten­dency towards fatal­ism, are all age-old his­tor­i­cal debates. And just as before, the ultra-left ten­den­cies of con­tem­po­rary move­ments have pro­voked a back­lash from those who call for a return to the fun­da­men­tals of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, usu­ally rep­re­sented by the fig­ure of “the party.”

What is now com­monly called the ultra-left emerged as an oppo­si­tional ten­dency within the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist move­ment in the early nineteen-twenties. Though crit­i­cal of the right, per­son­i­fied by Eduard Bern­stein, the cen­ter, rep­re­sented by Karl Kaut­sky, and even the left, dom­i­nated by Lenin, its mem­bers never orga­nized them­selves into a coher­ent cur­rent: its the­o­rists were spread across sev­eral coun­tries, dis­agreed sharply with one another, and were only grouped together when Lenin crit­i­cized them all in his infa­mous pam­phlet, Left-Wing Com­mu­nism: An Infan­tile Dis­or­der. Some, like Amadeo Bor­diga, fetishized the van­guard party; oth­ers, like Otto Rühle, saw work­ers’ coun­cils as the only organ of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process; still oth­ers like Paul Mattick turned to cri­sis the­ory. But what­ever their dif­fer­ences, their shared refusal to par­tic­i­pate in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, work with trade unions, or make any com­pro­mises with any kind of reformism, unex­pect­edly brought them all together. It was this under­ly­ing stub­born­ness that allowed Lenin to trans­form them into a sin­gle tendency.

It should be remem­bered, how­ever, that the ultra-left, despite what it would later become, was actu­ally not a minor­ity ten­dency in its hey­day. Its spokes­men were all major fig­ures in the his­tory of Euro­pean com­mu­nism: Bor­diga was the first gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party (PCI), Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the most respected com­mu­nists in Eng­land, and Pan­nekoek was cau­tiously praised in Lenin’s State and Rev­o­lu­tion as a bul­wark against reformism. Even more impor­tantly, the ultra-leftists had such a sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ing in the early twen­ties that they could right­fully claim to be the dom­i­nant com­mu­nist ten­dency of the time. When the PCI was finally formed in Jan­u­ary 1921, it was Bor­diga who com­manded the major­ity. And when the Ger­man Com­mu­nist Party (KPD) split in 1920, the vast major­ity fol­lowed the ultra-leftists in form­ing the Com­mu­nist Work­ers’ Party of Ger­many (KAPD). The Com­mu­nist Party, ini­tially led by Rosa Lux­em­burg and Karl Liebknecht, had itself bro­ken from reformist groups like the Social Demo­c­ra­tic Party (SPD) at the end of Decem­ber 1918. But the KPD, despite its rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance, was pulled in sev­eral direc­tions. Dis­agree­ments over the unions, par­lia­ment, and com­pro­mise in gen­eral, ulti­mately led to another break. It’s been sug­gested, how­ever, that the new party, the KAPD, “embraced almost the entire mem­ber­ship of the for­mer KPD.”2 The mar­gin­al­iza­tion of the ultra-left – Bor­diga, for exam­ple, offi­cially lost con­trol of his party to Gram­sci in 1926 – only set in after the defeat of the rev­o­lu­tions to which they were almost organ­i­cally connected.

With their rev­o­lu­tions crushed, and now harassed by cap­i­tal on the one side and Com­intern on the other, the ten­dency itself began to eat itself apart from within as ultra-leftists fought each other over the most triv­ial mat­ters, and by the thir­ties this once vibrant milieu was reduced to a jum­ble of sequestered groups. The onset of the Cold War proved to be an espe­cially deci­sive time for the ultra-left: mar­gin­al­ized more than ever, jour­nals lost much of their already lim­ited read­er­ship, orga­ni­za­tions dis­in­te­grated, and iso­lated groups ossi­fied into myopic sects. It was in this inhos­pitable con­text that two of the most promi­nent the­o­rists of the ten­dency made contact.

Cas­to­ri­adis Meets Pannekoek

The inter­sec­tion of two lives rep­re­sents the col­li­sion of two worlds. First and fore­most, there is the gen­er­a­tional divide: Anton Pan­nekoek was born in 1873, after the defeat of the Paris Com­mune, and Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis in 1922, just as the Ger­man Rev­o­lu­tion, in which Pan­nekoek had played a part, was painfully com­ing to accept its own defeat. Then there is the implicit geo­graphic shift: Pan­nekoek, born in the Nether­lands, played a con­sti­tu­tive role in the devel­op­ment of cen­tral Euro­pean com­mu­nism, while Cas­to­ri­adis, Greek by birth, made per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the emerg­ing French scene that was made famous in May 1968. Their exchange shows the cen­ter of grav­ity of the com­mu­nist move­ment mov­ing from Ger­many back to France, while French the­ory made increas­ing ref­er­ence to Ger­man history.

And last, the pecu­liar con­ver­gence of two dis­tinct forms of ultra-leftism: one that defined itself against Lenin and another that actu­ally made a con­sti­tu­tive detour through him. Though always aware of his great achieve­ments, most of the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left, from Sylvia Pankhurst to Her­man Gorter, even­tu­ally grew quite crit­i­cal of the Bol­she­vik leader’s the­o­ret­i­cal doc­trines. Pan­nekoek stands as per­haps the great­est exam­ple of a ten­dency that crit­i­cized all that Lenin rep­re­sented, from his philo­soph­i­cal posi­tions to his polit­i­cal prac­tice. Shortly after the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, Pan­nekoek devoted much of his writ­ing to refut­ing the uni­ver­sal applic­a­bil­ity of Bol­she­vik tac­tics. His famous book Work­ers’ Coun­cils sought to defin­i­tively dis­credit the the­ory of the van­guard party by demon­strat­ing the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the coun­cils as the only real form of pro­le­tar­ian eman­ci­pa­tion. Against both reformists and Lenin­ists, he claimed that “the new ori­en­ta­tion of social­ism is self-direction of pro­duc­tion, self-direction of the class-struggle, by means of work­ers’ coun­cils.”3

Cas­to­ri­adis, in con­trast to Pan­nekoek, had fought in the Greek resis­tance as a Com­mu­nist, later join­ing the Trot­sky­ists in France. Beyond the many pos­i­tive ref­er­ences to Lenin in his writ­ings of the time, it’s quite clear from his the­o­ret­i­cal works and his prac­ti­cal posi­tions that Lenin had left an indeli­ble stamp on him. His ultra-leftism is an unusual case: he entered it through Trot­sky­ism, but broke with that tra­di­tion when he argued that “the con­tent of social­ism” went beyond the abo­li­tion of pri­vate prop­erty to “work­ers’ man­age­ment of soci­ety,” down to the orga­ni­za­tion of work on the shop floor – a his­tor­i­cal task whose terms were estab­lished by the expan­sion and inte­gra­tion of man­age­r­ial labor in post­war cap­i­tal­ism.4 He spent a good decade furi­ously pro­duc­ing a body of work so impor­tant that it would effec­tively define the far left in France, lead­ing Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Euro­pean Green par­lia­men­tar­ian who was the most vis­i­ble stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion­ary of May 1968, to frankly admit in Obso­lete Com­mu­nism: The Left-Wing Alter­na­tive that he had pla­gia­rized Castoriadis’s work. But then Cas­to­ri­adis turned his pen against Marx­ism him­self; hav­ing already grounded self-management in the cri­tique of alien­ation in the young Marx, he con­cluded that the late Marx of Cap­i­tal had capit­u­lated com­pletely to bour­geois sci­en­tism, and brazenly declared that the only way to remain rev­o­lu­tion­ary was to break from Marxism.

The let­ters of these fig­ures not only give us a glimpse into the his­tory of the ultra-left, they also speak to our own time. True, our con­junc­ture is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent: we no longer face the real­i­ties of the Cold War, the role of the Soviet Union, the influ­ence of the Com­mu­nist Par­ties, or the uncer­tain­ties of decol­o­niza­tion. But there are nev­er­the­less ways in which the present resem­bles the con­junc­ture in which these let­ters were writ­ten. We are begin­ning to glimpse the end of a long period of pro­le­tar­ian defeat, just as Cas­to­ri­adis and Pan­nekoek were. They had the courage and insight to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ties of rev­o­lu­tion, reaf­firm the value of autonomous activ­ity, and empha­size the role of the pro­le­tariat at a time when intel­lec­tu­als of the left and right were loudly declar­ing the inte­gra­tion of the work­ing class, the defin­i­tive sta­bi­liza­tion of cap­i­tal, and the impos­si­bil­ity of rev­o­lu­tion­ary rupture.

But Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis were vin­di­cated a few years after their exchange. Hun­gary and Poland erupted in rev­o­lu­tion. Coun­cils dot­ted the social ter­rain, autonomous activ­ity was the order of the day, and sud­denly cap­i­tal did not seem so secure. If their mode of thought was in align­ment with the poten­tial and the lim­its of these nascent strug­gles, it seems that today’s ultra-left has a sim­i­lar align­ment with the erup­tions of Greece, Spain, France, and England.

Read­ing through these let­ters makes it clear that what­ever their agree­ments – and there were many – Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis dif­fered on the very two ques­tions that had defined the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left from the begin­ning: the nature of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and the party form. Though both clearly parted ways with the offi­cial com­mu­nist move­ment, their dif­fer­ences were nev­er­the­less irreconcilable.

Although the exchange cir­cu­lated around what may appear to be a pedan­tic rehash­ing of these two seem­ingly irrel­e­vant top­ics, both were using them to think through the key con­cepts of polit­i­cal prac­tice. Beneath Pannekoek’s ques­tion­ing of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion or Castoriadis’s con­sid­er­a­tion of the pos­si­ble degen­er­a­tion of the party lies a shared attempt to ascer­tain the con­tent of the com­mu­nism of their time. With suf­fi­cient his­tor­i­cal dis­tance from every­thing that tran­spired between the storm­ing of the Win­ter Palace and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have begun to ask how the con­tent of com­mu­nism can be reimag­ined beyond sec­tar­ian cliches. For our moment, these let­ters are remark­ably con­tem­po­rary. To grasp their rel­e­vance, we will have to trace the geneal­ogy of these two major questions.

The Russ­ian Revolution

Every com­mu­nist cur­rent that sought to pose an alter­na­tive to the prac­tices, poli­cies, and pro­grams of the Soviet Union first had to explain what kind of soci­ety it really was – an attempt to under­stand the mean­ing of com­mu­nism as well as cap­i­tal­ism. The dom­i­nant expla­na­tions in the West for the nature of the USSR were vari­ants of the Trot­sky­ist analy­sis. How­ever, Lenin had acknowl­edged, before Stalin’s ascent, that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment was not only a pro­le­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship, but either a “work­ers’ and peas­ants’ state” or a “work­ers’ state with bureau­cratic dis­tor­tions.”5 Dur­ing the years of “War Com­mu­nism,” from 1918 to 1921, when req­ui­si­tion of peas­ant land and nation­al­iza­tion of indus­try pro­ceeded along­side the intro­duc­tion of Tay­lorism and one-man man­age­ment in fac­to­ries, it was actu­ally Trot­sky who had called for exten­sion of mil­i­ta­riza­tion to the total con­trol of trade unions by the state, as an appa­ra­tus of indus­trial man­age­ment. Lenin insisted that more inde­pen­dent par­tic­i­pa­tion would train work­ers to ulti­mately take on the task of man­age­ment them­selves, argu­ing against Trot­sky that the “sum and sub­stance of his pol­icy is bureau­cratic harass­ment of the trade unions.“6

Begin­ning in 1921 with the “New Eco­nomic Pol­icy” (NEP), Lenin argued for the replace­ment of the state’s “surplus-grain appro­pri­a­tion” with a mod­er­ate “tax in kind,” which would per­mit peas­ant pro­duc­ers to sell the remain­der of their sur­plus in order to obtain man­u­fac­tured goods at a more equi­table rate. In spite of the rein­tro­duc­tion of mar­ket rela­tions this rep­re­sented, it was a tran­si­tion to “reg­u­lar social­ist exchange of prod­ucts,” and indeed an anti-bureaucratic mea­sure, intended to avoid fur­ther devel­op­ment of the state bureau­cracy that had grown in com­pen­sa­tion for “the atom­ised and scat­tered state of the small pro­ducer with his poverty, illit­er­acy, lack of cul­ture, the absence of roads and exchange between agri­cul­ture and indus­try.” If NEP rep­re­sented a move­ment towards the free mar­ket and cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions, this was a nec­es­sary step, since it per­mit­ted the peas­antry to develop social power instead of sub­ju­gat­ing it to the inter­ests of the urban and indus­trial pro­le­tariat.7

Lenin had already argued as early as 1918, in a polemic against Russ­ian left com­mu­nists, that “state cap­i­tal­ism would be a step for­ward,” even “a sure guar­an­tee that within a year social­ism will have gained a per­ma­nently firm hold.” Since the tran­si­tion period con­tained ele­ments of dif­fer­ent eco­nomic cat­e­gories, the direc­tion of large enter­prises by the state would be a “pro­le­tar­ian weapon,” since “it is not state cap­i­tal­ism that is at war with social­ism, but the petty bour­geoisie plus pri­vate cap­i­tal­ism fight­ing together against both state cap­i­tal­ism and social­ism.”8 Now, three years later, he reit­er­ated that the fact that the pro­le­tariat, rep­re­sented by the party, held power in the state, was the pri­mary defense against the “restora­tion of cap­i­tal­ism.”9 Recall­ing his ear­lier inter­ven­tion on behalf of inde­pen­dent trade unions, Lenin empha­sized that in a social­ist tran­si­tion there would still be classes, and there­fore “the class strug­gle is inevitable” – the pro­le­tariat would have to use unions to com­bat bureau­cracy and “sur­vivals of the old cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem” in the gov­ern­ment.10 The com­bi­na­tion of an anti-bureaucratic atti­tude and the con­tin­ued belief in shared work­ers’ and peas­ants’ power coex­isted with the some­what con­tra­dic­tory project of indus­tri­al­iz­ing agri­cul­ture, to develop the pro­duc­tive forces to the level of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and NEP man­i­fested these contradictions.

After Lenin’s death, the con­tin­u­a­tion of NEP was advo­cated by both Joseph Stalin and Niko­lai Bukharin, who were part of a hege­monic bloc within the Com­mu­nist Party. Bukharin, in spite of his ear­lier left­ist enthu­si­asm for imme­di­ate nation­al­iza­tion and indus­tri­al­iza­tion, came to believe in the grad­ual enrich­ment of the peas­ants, which would lead to their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the com­mu­nist project. This found sup­port in Stalin’s insis­tence on con­tin­u­ing Lenin’s line on the “work­ers’ and peas­ants’ gov­ern­ment,” defend­ing “the worker-peasant alliance as a car­di­nal means of achiev­ing the social­ist class objec­tives of the pro­le­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship in our peas­ant coun­try.“11

How­ever, the enthu­si­asm for NEP was by no means uni­ver­sal; the Left Oppo­si­tion, which included Trot­sky and Bukharin’s for­mer left­ist coau­thor Yvgeni Pre­o­brazhen­sky, had warned that agri­cul­tural mar­ket rela­tions would per­mit the devel­op­ment of a nascent cap­i­tal­ist class in the coun­try­side. Their fears were con­firmed in the rise of the kulaks, the land­hold­ing peas­ants who hired waged labor­ers and hoarded grain to coun­ter­act the drop in agri­cul­tural prices. In the 1927 plat­form of the left, Trot­sky described a grow­ing “class dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion among the peas­ants,” the slave-like exploita­tion of farmhands, and a gap between indus­trial and agri­cul­tural prices that threat­ened to sever the “alliance between town and coun­try.”12

The next year Stalin went to Siberia, to address party mem­bers who he accused not only of coop­er­at­ing with the kulaks, but also liv­ing in their homes. He con­trasted “social­ist con­struc­tion in the coun­try­side, in agri­cul­ture” with the dan­ger of cap­i­tal­ist restora­tion.13 Later that year, after return­ing to Moscow, he would rage in party plenums against the “Right devi­a­tion” which made restora­tion pos­si­ble, since in spite of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat, the roots of cap­i­tal­ism, of cap­i­tal and cap­i­tal­ists, were still embed­ded “in com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, in small pro­duc­tion in the towns and, espe­cially, the coun­try­side.”14 The threat of regen­er­at­ing cap­i­tal­ism resulted from the con­tra­dic­tion between two foun­da­tions of pro­duc­tion in the USSR: “the foun­da­tion of the most large-scale and united social­ist indus­try and the foun­da­tion of the most scat­tered and back­ward, small com­mod­ity econ­omy of the peas­ants.” To suc­ceed, social­ist con­struc­tion would have to place “agri­cul­ture on a new tech­ni­cal basis, the basis of large-scale pro­duc­tion, and bring it up to the level of social­ist indus­try.”15 With the end of NEP and the elab­o­ra­tion of the first Five Year Plan, Stalin put into place an eco­nomic pro­gram based on the col­lec­tiviza­tion of peas­ant land, aim­ing at the rapid indus­tri­al­iza­tion of the countryside.

Writ­ing in The Rev­o­lu­tion Betrayed, Trot­sky stepped into the mid­dle of these “zig-zags” in pol­icy by paint­ing a pic­ture of the USSR as a “degen­er­ated work­ers’ state.” The work­ers had taken state power, but it had been usurped by the Stal­in­ist bureau­cracy. The dif­fi­culty of this view is that the his­tory of the bureau­cracy in the USSR could by no means be lim­ited to Stalin – Trot­sky had him­self con­tributed to bureau­cra­ti­za­tion. Fur­ther­more, Lenin had already described a close rela­tion­ship between bureau­cra­ti­za­tion and eco­nomic devel­op­ment. “Social­ism has demon­strated its right to vic­tory,” Trot­sky famously wrote in a cel­e­bra­tion of Russia’s pro­duc­tive forces, “in the lan­guage of steel, cement and elec­tric­ity”; and he made a point of not­ing that the blame for Stalin’s ter­ror “lies not upon col­lec­tiviza­tion, but upon the blind, vio­lent, gam­bling meth­ods with which it was car­ried through.”16 But next to Lenin’s acknowl­edge­ment that the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of peas­ant agri­cul­ture by indus­trial state cap­i­tal­ism forced a com­plex bureau­cratic struc­ture, the com­pat­i­bil­ity of these two posi­tions seems unclear.

An unortho­dox Trot­sky­ist shoe sales­man named Bruno Rizzi began to cir­cu­late an analy­sis, cul­mi­nat­ing in 1939’s The Bureau­cra­ti­za­tion of the World, which claimed that if the bureau­cracy had indeed usurped state power, it was impos­si­ble to retain the idea of a “work­ers’ state,” degen­er­ated or oth­er­wise. The orig­i­nal, some­what ultra-left con­cept he advanced was “bureau­cratic col­lec­tivism,” which led Trot­sky to con­clude that Rizzi had “obvi­ously lost his bal­ance.”17 Accord­ing to this the­ory, the man­age­r­ial bureau­cracy was a rul­ing class that extracted a sur­plus for its own enrich­ment, and orches­trated through a total­i­tar­ian state a highly devel­oped monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism indis­tin­guish­able from fas­cism and the New Deal.

Cas­to­ri­adis may have had Rizzi’s account in mind when he under­scored the pri­mary impor­tance of the bureau­cracy as rul­ing class, but he rejected the ear­lier empha­sis on col­lec­tivism. After all, far from a term of Marx­ist the­ory, “col­lec­tivism” is a quasi-ethical term of soci­o­log­i­cal descrip­tion – it says noth­ing about the polit­i­cal econ­omy of the USSR. For Cas­to­ri­adis, cap­i­tal­ism as a sys­tem was defined by exploita­tion – the extrac­tion of a sur­plus from labor by a non-producing class who dom­i­nated the pro­duc­tion process – and not by mar­ket rela­tions, which were essen­tially epiphe­nom­ena. The fact that the rul­ing class of the USSR oper­ated col­lec­tively, rather than com­pet­i­tively, was irrel­e­vant – the soci­ety could only be described as bureau­cratic capitalism.

When Pan­nekoek first wrote to Cas­to­ri­adis, he reminded his younger com­rade that the the­ory of a non-socialist mode of pro­duc­tion in the Soviet Union was by no means a devel­op­ment inter­nal to Trot­sky­ism. In fact, the left com­mu­nists had made the case, arguably even before the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, that the poli­cies of Lenin and Trot­sky were not con­sis­tent with the strug­gle for a work­ers’ state and its accom­pa­ny­ing social­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. This was a the­ory of “state cap­i­tal­ism,” dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent from the later Trot­sky­ist ver­sion made famous by Tony Cliff. It held that the dis­place­ment of the “sovi­ets” or “work­ers’ coun­cils” that defined the explo­sions of 1905 and 1917 by the rule of the party rep­re­sented the defeat of social­ism. In this regard they antic­i­pated the cri­tique of Social­isme ou Bar­barie.

How­ever, there was a pri­mary dif­fer­ence. Con­vinced of the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the Soviet Union, Pan­nekoek went on to denounce root and branch the very rev­o­lu­tion that brought it into being. He called the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion “the last bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, though car­ried out by the work­ing class,” in the tra­di­tion of the Eng­lish Rev­o­lu­tion of 1647 and the French Rev­o­lu­tion in 1789. By “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion,” he meant specif­i­cally “a rev­o­lu­tion that destroys feu­dal­ism and opens the way to indus­tri­al­iza­tion.” He pointed out that even the his­toric bour­geois rev­o­lu­tions had been enabled by the revolt of “the arti­sans, the peas­ants and the work­ers,” but since “work­ing class was not yet mature enough to gov­ern itself,” a “minor­ity of func­tionar­ies and politi­cians” emerged as the dom­i­nant class. This was inevitable in Rus­sia, “the labor­ing class being a small minor­ity among the peas­ant population.”

The para­dox­i­cal ele­ment of this ultra-left the­ory, ulti­mately shared by Rühle and Gorter, was that it swung back around to the par­a­digm of reformism. Karl Kaut­sky vehe­mently denounced the Bol­she­viks, before Stalin’s dom­i­nance and in oppo­si­tion to Trot­sky, for their notion that a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion was pos­si­ble in a Rus­sia that had not yet passed through the cap­i­tal­ist stage of his­tory. As early as 1919, Kaut­sky wrote that the objec­tive con­di­tions in Rus­sia “were not ripe for the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal­ism,” and that the “imma­tu­rity of the exist­ing rela­tions” led the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion to pro­duce “the most oppres­sive of all forms of despo­tism that Rus­sia has ever had.”18

Castoriadis’s response was twofold. He first called atten­tion to the log­i­cal prob­lem behind Pannekoek’s purism: the ulti­mate fate of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion does not alter the fact that within it, the pro­le­tariat strug­gled for its own inter­ests, even insti­tut­ing work­ers’ self-management in the fac­to­ries, rather than sub­sum­ing its strug­gle into the pro­gram of the bour­geoisie. The fact that these inde­pen­dent demands were artic­u­lated by work­ers in Rus­sia “made the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion for­ever a pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion.” His sec­ond point was that the con­cept of the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion ignored a fun­da­men­tal devel­op­ment in the mode of pro­duc­tion of the 20th cen­tury: it was the bureau­cracy, rather than the bour­geoisie, which ruled in Rus­sia, and it was this same new class that was emerg­ing as a dom­i­nat­ing force through­out the world, includ­ing the cap­i­tal­ist world.

Through­out the whole ultra-left, these con­cepts of “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion” and the “bourgeois-democratic tasks” were never put into ques­tion. In spite of Pannekoek’s knowl­edge that Rus­sia was pre­dom­i­nantly peas­ant, that pre-capitalist con­di­tions altered the sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment of the work­ing class, and that his own the­ory was devel­oped within the spe­cific con­di­tions of polit­i­cal strikes in urban Europe, he never met the chal­lenge posed by the Bol­she­viks of the­o­riz­ing com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion in a peas­ant soci­ety. And though Trot­sky did accept the Bol­she­vik chal­lenge in 1917, the approach to indus­trial devel­op­ment and “per­ma­nent rev­o­lu­tion” that would pre­dom­i­nate among Trot­sky­ists took as its start­ing premise the sub­or­di­na­tion of peas­ant demands to the indus­trial proletariat.

But it was pre­cisely the peas­ant prob­lem that was cen­tral to the the­o­ries of eco­nomic devel­op­ment within the USSR. Just before Pan­nekoek and Castoriadis’s exchange, in 1951, Stalin wrote a final reflec­tion called Eco­nomic Prob­lems of Social­ism in the USSR. There he pre­empted the entire dis­cus­sion of state or bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia by frankly acknowl­edg­ing, even after the col­lec­tiviza­tion and indus­tri­al­iza­tion advo­cated in his ear­lier speeches, that the law of value “does exist and does oper­ate,” along­side com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, in the Russ­ian econ­omy. While the goods pro­duced by state-owned indus­try were dis­trib­uted pub­licly by the state, agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, even in the form of the kolkhoz, the col­lec­tive farm, “will not rec­og­nize any other eco­nomic rela­tion with the town except the com­mod­ity rela­tion – exchange through pur­chase and sale.”19

It is over­all an unset­tling col­li­sion of terms, which recalls Lenin’s argu­ment against the left com­mu­nists. The attrib­utes ascribed by the left to state cap­i­tal­ism were sim­ply the con­tra­dic­tions of the social­ist tran­si­tion, the per­sis­tence of ele­ments of dif­fer­ent modes of pro­duc­tion within the same econ­omy – includ­ing the sur­vivals of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions. These con­tra­dic­tions within the USSR became clear when, after denounc­ing Stalin in the 20th Party Con­gress and call­ing for peace­ful coex­is­tence with the cap­i­tal­ist world, Nikita Khrushchev orga­nized the sale of the state-owned “Machine and Trac­tor Sta­tions” to the col­lec­tive farms – which, Stalin had warned in Eco­nomic Prob­lems, meant that the agri­cul­tural enter­prises would pri­vately own their means of pro­duc­tion, a step back­wards away from communism.

Only one ultra-leftist seri­ously engaged with this mode of analy­sis. Bor­diga argued con­sis­tently that the cen­tral dynamic of the Soviet econ­omy was the “agrar­ian rev­o­lu­tion” – the con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity for cap­i­tal­ism. Bor­diga had sup­ported the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion as pro­le­tar­ian, which he reit­er­ated in a 1926 let­ter to Korsch, who had taken the state cap­i­tal­ist line; but the same year he per­son­ally butted heads with Stalin when he called for the Soviet Union to be gov­erned by the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist par­ties that made up the Com­intern. While Bor­diga sup­ported Trot­sky and the Left Oppo­si­tion in the 1920s, by 1945 he began to argue for an analy­sis of the Soviet Union that brought him far closer to Bukharin and the right.

The year before Cas­to­ri­adis and Pannekoek’s exchange, Bor­diga wrote a response to Stalin’s Eco­nomic Prob­lems called Dia­logue with Stalin. His assess­ment of the Soviet econ­omy was broadly sim­i­lar, but with an added his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion. Not only did the law of value oper­ate in the USSR, so did all the laws of cap­i­tal­ism, since it was impos­si­ble to develop the pro­duc­tive forces “with­out pro­le­tar­i­an­iz­ing peo­ple.” This meant a rep­e­ti­tion of the “fero­cious” process of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion that Marx described in Cap­i­tal:

It is the kolkhozians who find them­selves deprived of their cow, the nomadic shep­herds of Asia torn away from the con­tem­pla­tion of the beau­ti­ful stars of the Great Bear, or the feu­dal serfs of Mon­go­lia, uprooted from their soil of a thou­sand years. It is cer­tain that the orders demand more goods for pro­duc­tion, more work­ers, a longer labor time with a greater inten­sity of effort, which is to say, an accu­mu­la­tion and expanded repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal to the rhythm of hell.20

The agrar­ian rev­o­lu­tion, car­ried out in the process of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, was the vio­lent refash­ion­ing of peas­ants into land­less pro­le­tar­i­ans, the same process that occurred in 17th cen­tury Eng­land. Unsur­pris­ingly, this returns to Preobrazhensky’s descrip­tion of the coex­is­tence of plan­ning and the law of value in “social­ist prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion.” While Pre­o­brazhen­sky had called for a gen­tle process of accu­mu­la­tion based in pro­gres­sive taxes, he had ulti­mately sup­ported Stalin’s left­ward turn.

The next step for Bor­diga was to describe the eco­nomic char­ac­ter­is­tics of cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia. For him, the accu­mu­la­tion of profit was epiphe­nom­e­nal. What counted instead was the exis­tence of enter­prises that engaged in account­ing on the basis of a gen­eral equiv­a­lent, the law of value, and main­tained the exis­tence of prop­erty. Even though pro­duc­tion in Rus­sia was cen­trally planned by the state, it was car­ried out by indi­vid­ual enter­prises, which meant that prop­erty was not social and col­lec­tive, but restricted to pri­vate bod­ies. The rul­ing class in Rus­sia were not bureau­crats, but entre­pre­neurs – con­sis­tent with a the­ory of com­mu­nism that opposed “human com­mu­nity,” grounded in the human essence described by the young Marx, to com­merce, rather than pro­le­tariat to cap­i­tal. For this rea­son the exis­tence of sovi­ets or coun­cils was essen­tially irrel­e­vant to Bor­diga; if the work­ers man­aged enter­prises, they were sim­ply man­ag­ing the cap­i­tal relation.

So Stalin and Bor­diga dif­fered mainly in definitions. Stalin viewed social­ism as a con­tra­dic­tory process of con­struc­tion, while Bor­diga argued for a total con­cep­tion of com­mu­nism incom­pat­i­ble with sur­vivals from the old regime. But the trick is that Bordiga’s his­tor­i­cal analy­sis, while it led him to con­demn the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the USSR, also con­strained him to see it as pro­gres­sive, as he wrote in his Dia­logue:

The homage which, in spite of a band of suck­ers, we ren­der to “Great Stalin” responds pre­cisely to this process of ini­tial cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. If this really reaches the provinces of immense China, mys­te­ri­ous Tibet, and that fab­u­lous Cen­tral Asia that the Euro­pean stock came from, that will be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fact, a fact that will move for­ward the wheel of his­tory, but which, far from being social­ist, will be on the con­trary a cap­i­tal­ist fact. The ele­va­tion of the level of the pro­duc­tive forces in this immense part of the globe is nec­es­sary: but Stalin is right when he says that the credit will not go to him, but to the eco­nomic laws which have imposed this pol­icy upon him. His whole enter­prise con­sists in a fal­si­fi­ca­tion of labels which makes the cap­i­tal­ist com­mod­ity pass under the name of social­ism and which is, itself, a clas­sic expe­di­ent of the agents of prim­i­tive accumulation.

In other words, the whole of the ultra-left returned to Kaut­sky and his stages, which is why Bor­diga described Rus­sia as under­go­ing the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. Indeed, with only entre­pre­neurs man­ag­ing pro­duc­tion, it had not yet pro­duced a prop­erly cap­i­tal­ist class.

Though Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis did not directly address these issues, their exchange offers the­o­ret­i­cal advances that put the prob­lem of stages in new con­texts. On the one hand, the skilled indus­trial work­ing class who could orga­nize coun­cils on Pannekoek’s model were a such a minor­ity in Rus­sia that is very dif­fi­cult to under­stand how this model of orga­ni­za­tion could lead the nation on a mass scale – and it gives no way of deter­min­ing how the mem­bers of these coun­cils will be fed.

On the other hand, Pannekoek’s the­ory of a “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion,” though it did not address Bordiga’s agrar­ian ques­tion, did step away from Kaut­skyan com­mit­ment to the fixed pro­gres­sion of stages. While Rühle and Korsch ulti­mately con­cluded along with Kaut­sky that Rus­sia was too back­wards, Pan­nekoek empha­sized the sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment of the class, rather than the objec­tive devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces. He argued that if state cap­i­tal­ism led to rev­o­lu­tion, this “would not be the result of eco­nomic crises but of the class strug­gle” – a polit­i­cal rather than eco­nomic change.21 The Russ­ian work­ers, he wrote in the third let­ter, were “not yet capa­ble of tak­ing pro­duc­tion into their own hands”; and when the party bureau­cracy assumed this role in place of the pro­le­tariat, it became, ipso facto, the bourgeoisie.

But Pannekoek’s analy­sis had no way of deter­min­ing whether the class was ready, par­tic­u­larly if it was spread into dis­tinct forms of pro­duc­tion. Castoriadis’s work had focused with greater atten­tion on this prob­lem. He had described the sit­u­a­tion of the peas­antry as “feu­dal exploita­tion” by the bureaucracy, and dis­puted the clas­sic Bol­she­vik claim that the “small pro­ducer” would serve as the basis of cap­i­tal­ist restora­tion, instead argu­ing that only the bureau­cracy could play such a role.22 Though he still assumed peas­ant pro­duc­tion should be sub­mit­ted to urban pro­le­tar­ian lead­er­ship, he went on to call for a form of peas­ant auton­omy in “rural com­munes” anal­o­gous to the work­ers’ coun­cil.23 But because in Rus­sia there was no auto­matic pro­gres­sion towards rev­o­lu­tion, and no auto­matic way to unify the class, Cas­to­ri­adis con­tin­ued to insist on the form of the party – our next theme.

The Party

The his­tor­i­cal ultra-left was always some­what divided about the party form. Some, led by Bor­diga, defended the notion of a dis­ci­plined party even more fer­vently than Lenin him­self. Com­bin­ing the intran­si­gence of the Ger­man left com­mu­nists with Lenin’s cen­tral focus on the party led Bor­diga to pro­duce a pecu­liar breed of van­guardist sec­tar­i­an­ism. He soon went from reduc­ing the class to the party to reduc­ing com­mu­nism itself to lit­tle more than the real­iza­tion of an allegedly coher­ent, pure, and for­ever invari­ant pro­gram that was said to stretch back unchanged to the founders them­selves. Oth­ers, like Karl Korsch, remained ambigu­ous. Although a mem­ber of the KPD, Com­mu­nist Min­is­ter of Jus­tice in the regional Thuringian gov­ern­ment, and even a Riech­stag deputy until 1928, he even­tu­ally broke entirely with the offi­cial com­mu­nist move­ment and drew very close to Pan­nekoek, Rühle, and Mattick’s crit­i­cisms of the party, ulti­mately becom­ing some­thing of an anarchist.

It was the Ger­man and Dutch left com­mu­nists, how­ever, who were the most uncom­pro­mis­ing crit­ics of the party form. They effec­tively offered three dis­tinct, though inter­re­lated, crit­i­cisms. The first, which was often shared by the anar­chists, was a kind of moral denun­ci­a­tion of the author­i­tar­ian, unde­mo­c­ra­tic, and hier­ar­chi­cal char­ac­ter of par­ties in gen­eral. The sec­ond argued that the party, espe­cially in its van­guardist con­fig­u­ra­tion, was largely inap­plic­a­ble to West­ern Europe, since its mate­r­ial con­di­tions dif­fered so vastly from those that engen­dered it in Rus­sia. The third claimed that the pro­le­tariat had to pre­fig­ure the very world it was try­ing to cre­ate by invent­ing its own forms of strug­gle, rather than mir­ror­ing those that were firmly entrenched in the old world. Pan­nekoek sum­ma­rized this sen­ti­ment in his sec­ond let­ter to Cas­to­ri­adis, describ­ing the need to oppose the estab­lished com­mu­nist par­ties: “we can­not beat them by fol­low­ing their meth­ods. That is only pos­si­ble by prac­tic­ing our own meth­ods.” In terms of actual prac­tice, this trans­lated to a refusal of all bour­geois forms, from the trade unions to par­lia­ments. Otto Rühle cap­tured this sen­ti­ment in an essay auda­ciously titled “The Rev­o­lu­tion is Not a Party Affair.”

Even when they did pre­serve the party as a form of strug­gle, the left­ists severely restricted its role. Indeed, Lenin would at one point exclaim that they had essen­tially reduced the party of the class to a cir­cle of intel­lec­tu­als. Accord­ing to Pan­nekoek, the party could only play the ancil­lary role of clar­i­fy­ing, through dis­cus­sion, debate, and exchange, what the pro­le­tariat was already doing. As “organs of self-clarification,” such par­ties – and Pan­nekoek always imag­ined that there would be many – would have to con­tent them­selves with doing lit­tle more than offer­ing sug­ges­tions to the work­ers, cir­cu­lat­ing infor­ma­tion, and calmly debat­ing their dif­fer­ing points of view.24 They would serve as the inves­tiga­tive sub­com­mit­tees of a coun­cil, from which their des­tiny would ulti­mately be indistinguishable.

For both Cas­to­ri­adis and Pan­nekoek, there was a pri­mary log­i­cal con­se­quence of the Marx­ist premise that the eman­ci­pa­tion of the pro­le­tariat could only be the task of the pro­le­tariat itself: the coun­cil would be the prin­ci­pal organ of pro­le­tar­ian eman­ci­pa­tion. By regard­ing the coun­cil as both that which would destroy the old and cre­ate the new, both were echo­ing a char­ac­ter­is­tic trait of the ultra-left: the delib­er­ate con­fla­tion of means and ends.

But in con­trast to the sea­soned coun­cilist, Cas­to­ri­adis refused to accept that coun­cil would be the only organ of eman­ci­pa­tion. He believed that the party could con­sti­tute a sep­a­rate form of strug­gle, sub­or­di­nated to, but ulti­mately dis­tinct from the coun­cil: “the party is an organ whose form and sub­stance are unique.”25 Its tasks could not be pre­de­ter­mined, as Pan­nekoek implied, but would have to vary depend­ing on the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the strug­gle at hand. If the rev­o­lu­tion did indeed lead to the emer­gence of a net­work of decen­tral­ized coun­cils in which unob­structed dis­cus­sion could unfold, as Pan­nekoek sug­gested in his first let­ter, then Cas­to­ri­adis agreed that the party would limit its role. But, Cas­to­ri­adis quickly added, since the coun­cils would likely become the very sites of class strug­gle rather than peace­ful oases stand­ing out­side of it, the party, as some­thing other than the coun­cil, could not limit itself to “appear­ing like the owl of Min­erva at night­fall” but would have to set the stage for this struggle:

To be rev­o­lu­tion­ary sig­ni­fies both to think that only the masses in strug­gle can resolve the prob­lem of social­ism and not to fold one’s arms for all that; it means to think that the essen­tial con­tent of the rev­o­lu­tion will be given by the masses’ cre­ative, orig­i­nal, and unfore­see­able activ­ity, and to act one­self, begin­ning with a ratio­nal analy­sis of the present with a per­spec­tive that antic­i­pates the future.26

Expe­ri­enced as he was with the dirty pol­i­tics of work­place strug­gles in an envi­ron­ment dom­i­nated by Stal­in­ists on the one hand and reformists on the other, Cas­to­ri­adis poured some cold water on his friend’s naive faith in ratio­nal dis­cus­sion. He insisted that the party would have to actively pre­vent counter-revolutionaries from co-opting the strug­gle, and there­fore began to force a dis­junc­ture between means and ends. Unlike the coun­cil, the party would not be an end in itself, but could only be a means. The destruc­tion of the old world would have to be some­thing related to but ulti­mately other than the con­sti­tu­tion of a new one. Indeed, some­times rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies would have to resort to cer­tain unsightly means in order to bring about cer­tain desired ends. This could even mean a mil­i­tant, even unde­mo­c­ra­tic, inter­ven­tion on behalf the councils.

Pannekoek’s sub­se­quent response was envi­ably sim­ple: some­times the class is just not ready to make a rev­o­lu­tion. No amount of party inter­ven­tion, no mat­ter how mil­i­tant, orga­nized, or dis­ci­plined can force that class to mature – and in fact, such inter­ven­tion would actu­ally under­mine the strug­gles of the class, by forc­ing it into a sit­u­a­tion which it did not itself will­ingly cre­ate. The result, what­ever the inten­tions of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, would have to be a new form of oppression.

A famous strug­gle just after these let­ters serves as an exam­ple. From Decem­ber 1960 to Jan­u­ary 1961 Bel­gium was rocked by an unex­pect­edly mil­i­tant strike wave that ulti­mately involved some one mil­lion work­ers. Cas­to­ri­adis called it the most impor­tant event, after the upris­ngs of 1956, of the entire post­war period; Mau­rice Brin­ton, the guid­ing spirit of Sol­i­dar­ity, took part in them; and Guy Debord arrived the fol­low­ing year as part of a team sent by Social­isme ou Bar­barie to research the after­math of the strikes. The pecu­liar thing about these strikes, how­ever, was that despite their strength they com­pletely failed to exhibit any autonomous polit­i­cal ini­tia­tive. Cas­to­ri­adis put it as follows:

We thus find our­selves faced with a strik­ing con­tra­dic­tion between the com­bat­iv­ity of the work­ing class, its sol­i­dar­ity, its aware­ness of its oppo­si­tion as a class to the cap­i­tal­ist class and to the cap­i­tal­ist State, its dis­trust of bureau­cracy, on the one hand; and, on the other, the at-present insur­mount­able dif­fi­culty it encoun­ters as it tries to free itself from this bureaucracy’s grasp, to take on in a pos­i­tive way the direc­tion of its own affairs, to cre­ate its own insti­tu­tions, to for­mu­late explic­itly its own objec­tives.27

Castoriadis’s solu­tion was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion. But imag­ine, Pan­nekoek seemed to say, if this orga­ni­za­tion, which claimed to rep­re­sent the pro­le­tariat, had hastily inter­vened by seiz­ing the state, appro­pri­at­ing cer­tain points of pro­duc­tion, and dis­patch­ing red guards out into the streets to fight the Bel­gian police. Even if their inter­ven­tion had some­how pro­duced a rev­o­lu­tion, the con­se­quences would have been dis­as­trous. Nei­ther the pro­le­tariat, nor those other class for­ma­tions which it would have to lead down the road of rev­o­lu­tion, were pre­pared for such a sit­u­a­tion. Rather than eman­ci­pat­ing them­selves, they would only enter a dif­fer­ent kind of class society.

Cas­to­ri­adis never wrote a direct reply. But he had already elab­o­rated the basic premises of his posi­tion. Just as we can never really know if our actions will turn us into bureau­crats, we can also never know whether the pro­le­tariat is mature or not; there is sim­ply no way to sci­en­tif­i­cally mea­sure whether a class is ripe for power. In some cases, as with the Bel­gian strikes, there is some clar­ity. But in oth­ers, such as the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion of 1905, it is sim­ply impos­si­ble to tell. When the first work­ers went on strike, no one expected the whole coun­try to explode in insur­rec­tion. Even the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who had stud­ied the con­tours of the class strug­gle for decades were caught off guard, and had to deter­mine what to do in this new sit­u­a­tion. As it turns out, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies chose to inter­vene and the class was defeated – but we can only imag­ine the out­come if, after a sober assess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion, the pro­fes­sional rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies had decided not to inter­vene because the class was not ripe for power. What would have been the result if the party had cho­sen to fold its arms, take a step back­ward, and sit on the side­lines? Who is to say that it was not the very inter­ven­tion of these rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, their very attempt to esca­late a strug­gle pos­si­bly doomed to defeat, that later pre­pared the mate­r­ial con­di­tions for vic­tory less than a decade later?

The messi­ness of his­tory demon­strates the dif­fi­culty of trans­lat­ing Pannekoek’s thoughts on class imma­tu­rity into con­crete prac­tice. But as we have already seen, this ambigu­ous posi­tion also con­tains an orig­i­nal answer to an old ques­tion: what are the nec­es­sary objec­tive con­di­tions for a suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion? For Pan­nekoek, imma­ture objec­tive con­di­tions are not the result of under­de­vel­oped indus­trial pro­duc­tion. In fact, objec­tive con­di­tions are really noth­ing other than the gen­eral level of the class strug­gle itself. Because cap­i­tal is an antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion­ship between two classes, its matu­rity or imma­tu­rity can only be under­stood with ref­er­ence to the con­flict between these classes. So when Pan­nekoek speaks of unripe objec­tive con­di­tions, he is actu­ally refer­ring to the under­de­vel­oped sub­jec­tive con­di­tions of the class strug­gle itself. Claim­ing that Rus­sia was unripe for rev­o­lu­tion did not mean it was eco­nom­i­cally back­ward, only that the pro­le­tariat was not devel­oped enough to take power on its own.

But here, as Cas­to­ri­adis inti­mates, Pan­nekoek ulti­mately reveals his fail­ure to under­stand the spe­cific class dynam­ics of Rus­sia on the eve of the rev­o­lu­tion. For him, it is enough to claim that the class was not ready to take power sim­ply because, at the end of the day, the party had to step in. His logic is con­sis­tent only if one assumes that com­mu­nism will adopt the same form at all times: the grad­ual spread of coun­cils over the total­ity of the social fab­ric. If this fails to hap­pen, then the rev­o­lu­tion was bour­geois; if it does, which, one might add, it never has, then it was com­mu­nist. It is this sta­tic con­cep­tion of com­mu­nism, this refusal to accept that com­mu­nism may appear dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions, that it may have to be pro­duced by a diver­sity of means, that led him to mis­read the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the Russ­ian struggle.

Now the two ques­tions, the nature of the Soviet Union on the one hand and the role of the party on the other, inter­sect dra­mat­i­cally. If Pan­nekoek had paid seri­ous atten­tion to the his­tory of class rela­tions in Rus­sia, he would have seen that the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the pro­le­tariat at that his­tor­i­cal moment – its tech­ni­cal makeup, its polit­i­cal forms, its rela­tion­ship to the other classes – made it impos­si­ble for the class to take power with­out party inter­ven­tion. Because Rus­sia was so riven by class divi­sions, a rev­o­lu­tion with any chance of suc­cess would have to find some way to forge an alliance between pro­le­tar­ian van­guards and peas­ant masses in a way that could tran­scend these sep­a­ra­tions. Pan­nekeok would have seen that the class was, at that con­junc­ture, actu­ally quite ready. It just had to assume a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal form, one dis­tinct from the sovi­ets, in order to make the revolution.

This gap goes a long way in explain­ing Pannekoek’s some­what con­fus­ing belief that the party can never actu­ally be a part of the class itself. In his let­ters, he seems to argue that any enlarged con­cep­tion of the party would nec­es­sar­ily trans­form it into a spe­cial forces team, which would be called in to bash heads when the class runs into trou­ble. He refused to enter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that the party, as was the case in Rus­sia, may itself be a nec­es­sary ele­ment of the class. Unlike Cas­to­ri­adis, who tried to cap­ture the sig­nif­i­cance of the French Com­mu­nist Party by study­ing its pos­si­ble social bases, its par­tic­u­lar his­tory, and its broader rela­tion­ship to the class strug­gle itself, Pan­nekoek con­tented him­self with sim­ply argu­ing that it was on the side of cap­i­tal. For Cas­to­ri­adis, this was not good enough; the task was to metic­u­lously ana­lyze the pecu­liar, and rather unprece­dented, com­po­si­tion of a reformist party work­ing in the ser­vice of a for­eign coun­try, to “explain patiently the com­plete work­ings and mate­r­ial roots of Stalinism’s betrayal” in order to defin­i­tively out­flank it.28

Pan­nekoek delib­er­ately ignored these kinds of ques­tions – ques­tions, he would say, that have been posed in “an entirely prac­ti­cal way” – because his vision of rev­o­lu­tion, despite its numer­ous mer­its, was still largely informed by a kind of fatal­ism. Pro­le­tar­i­ans will nat­u­rally fig­ure every­thing out based on their imme­di­ate expe­ri­ences, as though they pos­sess some kind of innate knowl­edge organ­i­cally dri­ving them to a spec­i­fied goal, like an acorn grow­ing into an oak tree. They will spon­ta­neously become polit­i­cal sub­jects, like the log­i­cal result of an equa­tion, and make their rev­o­lu­tion on their own. If they run into any set­backs, it’s only because they still don’t have enough expe­ri­ence; if they suf­fer a defeat, it’s only because they weren’t ready. For the Pan­nekoek of these let­ters, there is no gap between imme­di­ate needs and the eman­ci­pa­tion of the class through rev­o­lu­tion. The two seam­lessly blend into one another in such a way as to entirely cover up the moment of strategy.

But in order to explore these themes fur­ther we have to take a step back­ward. Though many of the prob­lems above – the con­fla­tion of means and ends, the eli­sion of strat­egy, the sup­pres­sion of class het­ero­gene­ity, and the rever­sion to fatal­ism – per­sist within today’s ultra-left, the best way to under­stand and even­tu­ally super­sede them is to go back to their gen­e­sis. This means return­ing to another famous encounter, that between the ultra-left and Lenin him­self. It was Lenin, after all, who united a set of rad­i­cally dis­tinct groups under the umbrella of the “ultra-left.” Our forth­com­ing inves­ti­ga­tion, there­fore, will move back­wards to Lenin and his adversaries.

Until then, we present the let­ters. The first entry in this exchange, from Pan­nekoek to Cas­to­ri­adis, has been avail­able on the inter­net, and we repro­duce that ver­sion here. Pan­nekoek indi­cates that he wrote the let­ter in Eng­lish, but it was ulti­mately trans­lated into French for pub­li­ca­tion in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. It is not clear whether this ver­sion is a trans­la­tion or the orig­i­nal Eng­lish text. Castoriadis’s response, writ­ten under the pen name Pierre Chaulieu, and a final response by Pan­nekoek, have only been avail­able in French. The ver­sions avail­able here are our trans­la­tions from the orig­i­nals reprinted at



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Submitted by Spikymike on October 27, 2013

An interesting and useful pulling together of various earlier and more recent 'ultra-left' tendencies and I'm curious to see how the author moves on to his (I suspect) defence of Lenin. For us today it seems we can find a better theoretical understanding of modern global capitalism only by weaving together some of the better elements of these past contributions. I think maybe the conclusions in this text regarding the need to recognise that communism might come through a diversity of means and political forms, whilst being a seemingly sensible observation given the changing nature of global capitalism, is drawn here from the same narrow focus of revolution as essentially limited within a national framework which even in the time of the Russian revolution was misplaced.