Anton Pannekoek, Workers' Councils and For Workers' Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton [Review]

Anton Pannekoek, Workers’ Councils, edited and introduced by Robert F. Barsky (AK Press, 2003). xxxiv +219pp. £9.00. ISBN 1-902593-56-1

For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton, edited and introduced by David Goodway (AK Press, 2004). 380pp. £12.00. ISBN 1-904859-07-0

Here are two books from AK Press, one not only valuable in itself but also a potential starting-point for further projects, the other representing something of a missed opportunity.

The latter first. Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960) was a well-known figure in the Dutch and German social-democratic parties in the early 20th century, and was among the left-wing minority which opposed the first world war and welcomed the Russian revolution. He joined in the creation of a new workers’ international, but he and his comrades soon parted company with the Bolsheviks over Lenin’s insistence that the newly-founded communist parties should work within parliament and the trade unions. For Pannekoek and others who shared his views, the war had shown that parliamentary parties and trade unions, formed to gain reforms during the era of ascendant capitalism, had become integrated into capitalism and now acted to prolong the subjection of the working class. Events in Russia and Germany at the end of the war had instead revealed workers councils as the new form of organisation which the mass of workers, no longer relying on leaders, would use to fight against the bosses, overthrow capitalism, and administer the post-revolutionary society.

At first Pannekoek and his comrades were known as ‘left’ communists, since their outlook appeared to be a ‘more extreme’ version of Bolshevik orthodoxy. Later, however, Pannekoek came to analyse the Russian revolution as a bourgeois revolution leading to the establishment of state capitalism, and what had initially appeared to be tactical disagreements were now understood as fundamental differences between the methods of the capitalist revolution in Russia and the communist revolution in Western Europe. Hence the ‘left’ communists became better known as ‘council communists’, through their emphasis on the council form.

Pannekoek wrote Workers’ Councils during and just after the second world war and his English translation was first published as a single volume in Melbourne in 1950. The first two of the book’s five sections were reproduced by Root & Branch in the USA in 1970, while in 1984 the whole 1950 volume was brought out in four successive pamphlets by Echanges et Mouvement. However the current AK Press edition is the first time the whole work has been republished as a single volume in over 50 years.

While it is very welcome to have this useful introduction to the ideas of council communism readily accessible once again, I have several niggles over the way in which it has been produced.

First, nearly all of the numerous errata from the 1950 edition have been left uncorrected; yet at the same time, “some minor corrections have been made to improve readability”, without any indication of what these “corrections” are or where they occur.

Second, there is little contextual information which might tell you something about Pannekoek, the movement he belonged to, or how he arrived at his views. Instead we have misleading statements such as (on the back cover) “Pannekoek… lived and worked in workers’ councils from China to Germany”, which makes a workers’ council sound like a kibbutz, and I doubt very much if Pannekoek ever set foot in China.

Third, while there is a lengthy bibliography containing some useful references for anyone seeking such background information, these are buried indiscriminately among numerous other less relevant works with titles such as “Works Councils: Consultation, Representation and Cooperation in Industrial Relations”.

Fourth, I realise AK have to shift copies, but is it really necessary to put “Introduction by Noam Chomsky” on the front cover, when the book contains no such thing, but rather an interview between the editor and Chomsky, which in content is at best tangential to Pannekoek’s text?

By comparison For Workers’ Power is an altogether more impressive production. Maurice Brinton (pseudonym of Christopher Pallis, 1923-2005) was the “principal writer, translator and thinker” of Solidarity, the British libertarian socialist group best known in the 1960s and 1970s for its propagation of the ideas of Cornelius Castoriadis, and for its industrial coverage which emphasised the need for independent working class struggle.

In his informative introduction David Goodway traces the continuities and changes in Brinton’s ideas over nearly three decades following his break with Trotskyism at the end of the 1950s, and looks in particular at Brinton’s relationship to anarchism, concluding that his politics were anarchist in all but name.

Approximately two-thirds of the book is taken up with Brinton’s relatively well-known texts on Paris: May 1968, The Irrational in Politics, and The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control. The rest of the book consists of 40 items - leaflets, articles, book reviews, introductions to pamphlets - spanning the years 1960-1985, and representing nearly half of Brinton’s post-Trotskyist output. The criteria for selection are not stated, the order of arrangement is slightly haphazard - neither wholly thematic nor strictly chronological - and Goodway admits that while Brinton may have been the “primary author” of all of the texts included here, in the case of items published collectively by the Solidarity group “many of these would not be entirely his work”.

Nonetheless this is a rich and fascinating body of work, spanning a wide variety of topics, such the history of working class revolt (including the Paris Commune, Russian Revolution, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Portugal 1974 and Poland 1980), eye-witness accounts of struggles, anarchism, and sexual politics. Constant themes - which would be recognisable to Pannekoek - are a striving to update and redefine critical theory; a critique of all existing organisations claiming to represent the working class; and the effort to identify and encourage the seeds of new forms of working class struggle and organisation which “anticipate the socialist future of society rather than mirror its capitalist past”.

The standard of production of For Workers’ Power shows what could have been done with Workers’ Councils, but unfortunately wasn’t. This book is well worth reading in its own right; what would also be interesting would be an account and assessment of the influence of Solidarity’s ideas, activities and members not only during its heyday in the 60s and 70s but also, following the break-up of the national group, in the ‘ultra-left’ and anarchist groups of the 1980s. Perhaps For Workers’ Power will be the inspiration for further work along these lines.