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What About Marxism? / Anton Pannekoek, 1948

Source:  What about Marxism?  / Anton Pannekoek. – In: Industrial Worker, 7 February 1948. – p. 2; source pdf: Internet Archive ; transcription by Micah Muer for Marxists’ Internet Archive , 2017.

Industrial Worker preface

An unusual amount of effort is being expended currently in many publications to refute Marxism. life magazine uses many pages for an article by John Dos Passos on “The Failure of Marxism” that has no more to do with its failure than crooked bookkeeping has to do with the validity of the multiplication tables. Perhaps the occasion is that February, 1948, marks the 100th anniversary of the enunciation of the basic historical teachings of Marxism in the “Communist Manifesto” of 1848… which doesn’t seem to have much bearing on what passes under the name of “Communism” a century later. It is a pleasure under these circumstances to run this article by one of the world’s best-known exponents of Marxism, Dr. Anton Pannekoek, and we hope that we have not altered his meaning where we ran into words where his hand-writing baffled us… but Holland is too far away to check.


In speaking of Marxism two things called by that name must be distinguished. First the scientific studies and discoveries of Marx that form a lasting contribution to human knowledge. Secondly the practical application in political opinions and action, by Marx himself and by those who call themselves his followers. Marx has given us scientific knowledge about the relations of society, mind, economy, classes, law, ideologies, politics, that belong to the most important progress of science in the 19th century. The application of this knowledge to practice and politics of the day, dependent as it was on the often imperfectly known conditions of that day, of course was often subject to failures.

So Marxism has many different sides. First it is a philosophical world conception. Just as in natural science the investigators proceed from the principle – which cannot be proven by experiment – that all phenomena are connected and depend on one another, the so-called principle of causuality, better of unity of nature – so Marxism proceeds from the principle that the entire world, including the social and spiritual phenomena presenting themselves in man and society, forms an interconnected unity. All ideas, thoughts, actions of man thus are determined by the rest of the world, by reality. This epistimological world conception he himself called materialism. To express the evolution of world and knowledge in its antagonistic form, the adjective “dialectic” was added; but this word, which at that time had a real meaning, now mostly has to serve parrot-propagandists to over-awe innocent listeners.

Marxism, then, is a science. From all the facts and events of human history, Marx deduced that it was the system of production – developing through the growth of technics and knowledge – that mainly determined the social, political and spiritual phenomena. He discovered the struggle of the social classes as the chief moving force of the inner history of peoples and empires, of their wars and revolutions, reflected in their ideologies and beliefs. As a science of society this doctrine was called historical materialism. Its theses have not the strict character, [as] for example of the laws of classical physics. Individual conditions and behaviour often show a wild variety; the rules appear in the averages, in the regularity of the great numbers, the classes. (Modern physicists emphasize that physical laws too are statistical laws.)

As a science of the present system of production, Marxism is a new political economy, a complete theory of capitalism, as the outcome of his main life study. By this theory he could explain exploitation and surplus-value, and foresee the growing concentration of capital and industry. Capitalism was now seen as a transient state to be transformed by a social revolution into a production system without classes and exploitation, where mankind is entirely and consciously master of its work and life. In the class fight of the working class he recognized the driving force in this revolution. Thus he took sides with the proletariat in its upward struggle.

So Marxism is a class-science. Marxism now became the life-system of the toiling and struggling workers; it expresses in conscious theoretical form what they are, what they feel and think, the daily experiences of their life, their aspirations, their will, their fight. It is rejected and refuted by those who take their point of view in the ruling class. Its name and authority is borrowed by those who side with the workers’ aims; so their errors are now imputed to Marxism.

Marx seeing social development with so lucid clearness, expected it to be more rapid than was possible under all the retarding and opposite forces. Under the retardation capitalism steadily strengthened. Things that he could not foresee as trusts and world wars, airplanes and atom bombs, changed the conditions of class fight. He necessarily saw the workers’ emancipation in the context of his own time, when barricade fights decided over governments and revolutions. Afterwards he was enthusiastic over the plucky and successful fight of the German workers, by the use of the ballot, against Bismarck’s anti-socialist law. But he never believed in parliamentarism, as did most of his followers in the social-democratic movement at the end of the 19th century. Here again the expectations were too optimistic, chiefly through lack of understanding of the enormous growth of capitalist power, and of the softening influences of economic conjuncture.

True science, it is said, is discerned by the exactness of its predictions. Look at the natural sciences with their ascertained laws, at astronomy or physics; and the predictions of Marx on social development and revolution proved false. Are those who try to discredit Marxian science on this argument – taking Marx as a kind of soothsayer – acquainted with the practice of science? The history for example of astronomy is full of predictions that did not come true, of disagreements that alarmed the scientists and had to be explained by new unforeseen circumstances. May I here quote myself on the character of natural law? “What certainty do I have that the event thus asserted and computed really takes place? The answer can only be: None. […] No scientist assumes that for predictions on the basis of known laws there is absolute certainty. Hundreds of times it has happened, contrary to expectation, that it did not come true, and on such cases depended the progress of science.” (”Das Wesen des Naturgesetzes” in “Erkenntnis”, Vol. III, p. 397.)

And now the so-called “predications,” that is the conclusions derived by Marx from his theoretical work. If we look at the changes of society in the past century, what do we see? A continuous development of big industry, and decline of small business into entire dependence. A concentration of capital, more enormous than ever could have been expected; a concentration of power in few hands, exemplified for example by “America’s sixty families.” An increase of the working class, apparent in all statistics, in the chief industrial countries now the majority of the population. An increase in their class fight – a century ago the first revolts of a small despised lot of starvelings, now ever the chief factor determining inner and even foreign politics. All this has long since been recognized, though cavilled at in detail, by the learned economists of the bourgeoisie. But they had one strong point. Marx had spoken of the increasing misery, the capitalist class not even being able to feed its slaves. That was false; the fight of the workers, the trade unions, the social reform, all tended to raise the standard of living of the masses, indicating the gradual rise of society to a real commonwealth; and Marxian writers had to point out at least the “relative misery,” as living standards lagged behind the great increase of the productivity of labor. Thus it was generally assumed. And now? Just now, that science demonstrates its power in the highest degree, that new immense sources of energy are being opened, now famine rages over the world, naked hunger destroys the millions, direct visible consequences of capitalist development. If ever a prediction came true, more terribly than any student of Marx could have expected, it is this.

Marx then proceeded: but at the same rate as their misery also increases the rebelliousness of the masses. Do not we find that here the prediction fails? The rise of a powerful working class movement in the 19th century, with its rebellions, it strikes, its political campaigns, attests to the truth of his conclusion. Why in later times we see a temporary lull is explicable.


The failure of Marxism, proclaimed ever again, centers around the non-occurrence as yet of the expected social revolution. Those wily Marxists, we might say, always omitted to indicate in what year it would happen, so they never could be caught up with their failure; but the delay could not miss to throw doubt upon all their assertions. The important thing now is not the contents, the arguments of this anti-Marxist campaign; as to social development we have seen that they are false; never were predictions more fully confirmed by the facts than those of Marx’s theory. The important thing is the campaign itself, as a social phenomenon. Why all these attacks on Marxism just now?

Marxism always was the object of vehement attacks, from the side of the spokesmen of capitalism. Most vehemently of course when the working class movement arose in a mighty threat. But today it is different a result not of the power but of the weakness of the workers’ fight. It is not the enemies, the defenders of capitalism, but the friends of working class socialism from whom the objections are forthcoming. It is not mockery or taunt, it is bitterness that we hear in their criticism. It is not hatred but disappointment that lies at the basis. So it must be examined somewhat more closely.

Socialist society, as put forward by social democracy as the goal of the working class, was just what could appeal strongly to social minded intellectuals. There state power by means of its officials and minor political bodies, directs production, distribution, and social life at large was to be a well-planned system. Thus all kinds of intellectuals, scientists, managers, specialists would find their tasks, not as underlings of capital, but as highly appreciated servants of the community, exerting all their capacities for the weal of the working masses. Physicians who preferred to be health officers for the people to earning money from the imaginary illnesses of the rich; scientists who are desirous of applying their science to create abundance for all, instead of seeing it converted into profit for capital; artists who wish to bring beauty into the life of the masses; politicians coming forward as spokesmen of the miserable – they all saw socialism as a new world giving significance and contentment to their life. What for the workers was only partial liberation, assigned to the socialist intellectuals the glorious role of being the active liberators from misery, as politicians, leaders and officials. Thus the doctrine of State Socialism to be brought about by class fight, attractive for the workers themselves only as long as they did not feel their full power, was for the socialist intellectuals the consummation of the highest aspirations of mankind. So they hailed Marxism as the theory of social development, the scientific basis of their ideals.

There is no room here to go into the details of why social-democracy collapsed, with all its ideals and promises. For the socialist workers this collapse was a heavy disappointment, stirring them up however to look for better pathways. For the intellectual class in its social-minded part, it was more than a disappointment; it was a tragedy. With the hope of an important future social function of their class gone, their faith in Marxism broke down. And their reproach against Marxist theory that had lured them into these illusions took the form of attacks against its truth. Thus we see here an instance of how theoretical contests on Marxism reflect changes in the relations of the classes.

The intellectual class turning away from socialism now has to look for its social function in other directions. That they will see it in being simply members in the community of the working personnel cannot be expected, now that the workers themselves hardly begin to perceive the way of self-rule by means of council organization. Rather they will turn to the ways of managerialism or state capitalism. In that case the former bent towards democracy, as chosen leaders of the working masses, will be superseded by the desire for dictatorship, for domination, as masters in their own right over the workers. The Russian example shows that even in this case some other distorted form of Marxism may be constructed as its theoretical expression. The workers in the defense of true Marxism against the attacks, defend the theory of their fight for freedom.

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Compiled by Vico, 3 June 2019