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Germans look on as the Reichtag building burns on February 27, 1933
Personal Act / Anton Pannekoek, 1999
Source: Personal Act / Anton Pannekoek. – Published by Collective Action Notes (mirror), December 1999, copied to:
The burning of the Reichstag by Van der Lubbe, reveals the most divergent positions. In the organs of the communist left (Spartacus, De Radencommunist), the burning is approved as an act of a communist revolutionary. To approve and applaud such an act means advocating its repetition. Hence it is necessarily good to fully appreciate its usefulness.
Perhaps the fire’s meaning could only be to affect or to weaken the dominant class: the bourgeoisie. Here, there can be no question. The bourgeoisie is not in the least affected by the burning of the Reichstag; its domination is in no manner weakened. On the contrary, for the government, it was the occasion to considerably reinforce its terror against the worker’s movement. The indirect consequences must still be emphasized.
But even if such an act affects and weakens the bourgeoisie, the only consequence is to develop for the workers the conviction that only such individual acts can liberate them. The full truth that they must acquire is that only mass action by the working class as a whole can defeat the bourgeoisie. This basic truth of revolutionary communism will, in such a case, be hidden from them. Their independent action as a class will be lost. Instead of concentrating all their forces on propaganda among the working masses, the revolutionary minorities will squander their forces in personal acts which, even when such acts are carried out by a dedicated group with many members, are not capable making the domination of the ruling class falter. With their considerable forces of repression, the bourgeoisie could easily come after such a group. Rarely has there been a revolutionary minority group carrying out actions with more devotion, sacrifice, and energy than the Russian nihilists a half-century ago. At certain moments, it even appeared that by a series of well organized attendats, the nihilists would overthrow Tsarism. But a French detective, engaged to take over the anti-terrorist struggle in place of the incompetent Russian police, succeeded by his personal energy and his entirely western organization in destroying nihilism in only a few years. It was only afterwards that a mass movement developed and finally overthrew Tsarism.
Can such personal acts nevertheless have value as a protest against the abject electoralism, that turns aside the workers from their true fight?
A protest only has value if it arises from conviction, leaves a forceful impression, or develops consciousness. But who believes that a worker defending his interests by voting social democrat or communist, will express doubts about electoralism because someone has burned the Reichstag? This is a completely derisory argument, similar to what the bourgeoisie itself does to rid the workers of their illusions, making the Reichstag completely powerless, deciding to dissolve it, setting aside the decision process. German comrades said that this can only be positive since the confidence of the workers in parliamentarianism will receive a first-rate blow. Without doubt, but doesn’t this depict matters in a far too simplistic way? In such a case, democratic illusions will be shed by another route. Then, where there is no right to a generalized vote or where Parliament is weak, the conquest of true democracy is advanced and workers can only then imagine themselves arriving there by their collective action. In fact, systematic propaganda seeking to explain from the start of each event an understanding of the real significance of parliament and class struggle, always remains the main point.
Can the personal act be a signal, giving the final push that sets in motion, by radical example, this immense struggle?
There is a certain current running in history where individual actions, in moments of tension, are like sparks on a powder keg. But the proletarian revolution is nothing like the explosion of a powder keg. Even if the Communist Party strives to convince itself and convince the world that the revolution can break out at any moment, we know that the proletariat must still form itself in a new manner to fight as a mass. A certain bourgeois romanticism can still be perceived in these visions. In past bourgeois revolutions, the bourgeoisie rose up with the people behind them and found themselves in confrontation against the sovereigns and their arbitrary oppression. An attendat on the person of a king or a minister could be the signal to revolt. The vision today in which a personal act could set the masses in motion reveals itself to be a bourgeois conception of a chief; not the leader of an elected party, but a chief who designates himself and, who by his actions leads the passive masses. The proletarian revolution finds nothing in this outdated romanticism of the leader: a class, impelled by massive social forces, must be the source of all initiative.
But the mass, after all, is composed of individuals, and the actions of the mass contain a certain number of personal actions. Certainly, it is here that we touch on the true value of the personal act. Separated from mass action, the act of an individual who thinks he can realize alone something great is useless. But as part of a mass movement, the personal act has the highest importance. Workers in struggle are not a regiment of marionettes identical in courage but composed of forces of different natures concentrated toward the same goal, their movement irresistible. In this body, the audacity of the bravest finds the time and place to express itself in personal acts of courage, when the clear comprehension of others leads them towards a suitable goal in order not to lose the gains. Likewise, in a rising movement, this interaction of forces and acts is of great value when it is guided by a clear comprehension that animates, at this moment, the workers which is necessary to develop their combativity. But in this case, so much tenacity, audacity, and courage will be called for that it will not be necessary to burn a Parliament.
Individual Acts / Anton Pannekoek, 1979
Source: Individual Acts / Anton Pannekoek. – In: Internationalism (International Communist Current), 1979, No 20 (Summer); transcribed for For Communism (John Gray’s website, disappeared), copied by Jonas Holmgren for Marxists’ Internet Archive , proofread by Andy Carloff, last updated 19 May 2019.
Many divergent positions have been taken up on the burning of the Reichstag by Van Der Lubbe. In the organs of the communist left (Spartacus, Radencommunist) it was approved as the act of a revolutionary communist. To approve and applaud such an act means calling for it to be repeated. That’s why it’s important to understand what use it had.
Its only meaning could be to hit, to weaken, the ruling class, the bourgeoisie. There can be no question of this here. The bourgeoisie hasn’t been at all hurt by the burning of the Reichstag. Its rule hasn’t in any way been weakened. On the contrary, the government has seized the opportunity to strengthen considerably its terror against the workers movement. The ultimate consequences of this have yet to be appreciated.
But even if such an act really did hit or weaken the bourgeoisie, the only consequence of this would be to encourage the workers to believe that such individual acts could liberate them. The great truth that they have to learn, that only the mass action of the entire working class can defeat the bourgeoisie, this basic truth of revolutionary communism, would be obscured from them. It would lead them away from autonomous class action. Instead of concentrating all their forces on propaganda within the working masses revolutionary minorities would exhaust their energies in individual acts which, even when carried out by a large and dedicated group, would in no way shake the domination of the ruling class. With its considerable auxiliary forces, the bourgeoisie could easily master such a group. There has rarely been a minority group which carried out such actions with the devotion, sacrifice and energy of the Russian nihilists half-a-century ago. At certain moments it even seemed that, through a series of well-organized individual assassinations, they would succeed in overthrowing Tsarism. But a French policeman, called in to take over the anti-terrorist struggle in place of the incompetent Russian police, succeeded with his Western energy and organization to annihilate nihilism in a few years. It was only afterwards, with the development of the mass movement, that Tsarism was overthrown.
But doesn’t such an act have a value as a demonstration against the abject electoralism which serves to derail the workers’ struggles? A demonstration has value if it convinces people by giving an impression of strength, or if it develops consciousness. But are we really to believe that a worker who thinks he’s defending his interests by voting social democrat or Communist is going to start doubting this because the Reichstag is burned down? All this is completely derisory compared to what the bourgeoisie itself does to undermine the workers’ illusions – rendering the Reichstag completely impotent, dissolving it or removing it from the decision-making process.
Some German comrades have said that the act could only be positive because it would strike a blow at the workers’ confidence in parliamentarism. Doubtless. But we can still ask whether this is looking at things in a rather simplistic way. Democratic illusions would only be introduced from another source. Where there’s no right to vote, where parliament is impotent, the conquest of "real democracy" is put forward and the workers imagine that this is the only thing to fight for. In fact, systematic propaganda which uses each event to develop an understanding of the real meaning of parliament and the class struggle can never be side-stepped and is always the essential thing.
Can’t individual acts be the signal which sets in motion a mass struggle by giving a radical example? It’s a well known fact in history that the action of an individual in moments of tension can act as a spark to a powder keg. But the proletarian revolution has nothing in common with the explosion of a powder keg. Even if the Communist Party is trying to convince itself and everyone else that the revolution can break out at any moment, we know that the proletariat still has to form itself for new mass combats. These sorts of ideas reveal a certain bourgeois romanticism. In past bourgeois revolutions, the rising bourgeoisie, and behind it the people, were confronted with the personalities of sovereigns and their arbitrary oppression. An assassination of a king or a minister could be a signal for a revolt. The idea that in the present period an individual act could set the masses in movement is based on the bourgeois concept of the "chief", not an elected party leader, but a self-appointed chief, whose action mobilizes the passive masses. The proletarian revolution has nothing to do with this out-dated romanticism of the chief. All initiative has to come from the class, pushed forward by massive social forces.
But, after all, the masses are made up of individuals and mass actions contain a whole number of individual actions. Of course, and here we come to the real value of individual acts. Separated from mass action, the act of an individual who thinks he can accomplish great things on his own is useless. But as part of a mass movement, it’s of the greatest importance. The class in struggle isn’t a regiment of identical puppets marching in step and accomplishing great things through the blind force of its own movement. It is on the contrary a mass of multiple personalities, pushed forward by the same will, supporting itself, exhorting itself, giving itself courage. The irresistible strength of such a movement is based on many different strengths all converging towards the same goal. In this context, the most audacious bravery can express itself in individual acts of courage, since it is the clear understanding of all the others which directs these acts towards a real goal, so that the fruits of such acts aren’t lost. In an ascending movement, this interaction of strengths and acts is of the greatest value, when it’s directed by a clear understanding by the workers about what needs to be done and about how to develop their combativity. But in these cases, it takes a lot more tenacity, audaciousness and courage than it takes to burn a parliament!
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Compiled by Vico, 6 June 2019