Letter: A Late Farewell to Pannekoek

Date: 2024-05-11T19:03:29+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

On September 15th, 1927, something sudden happened. While returning from a journey originally intended to revive his now ailing health, on the return back from this trip to Switzerland, the Dutch titan of Poetry, Art, and Communism Herman Gorter died.1 Gorter’s death sent shockwaves through the already faltering Communist Left and whatever remained of the once growing movement to which he had given everything to. The author of such Dutch classics as Mei (1889) and the deeply communist Pan (1912) both cemented the Dutchman as a pillar of art and literary mastery. In the face of his death Gorter was calm and spent his remaining hours making himself useful, with his obituary stating “He had death before his eyes ten hours before he died. And he spent the time arranging about his unpublished writings and issuing strict instructions that nobody should speak that his grave.”2 This simplicity and courage was moving to the few still surrounding Gorter, gaining him several detailed post-mortem accounts of his life. 

One of those was the essay “A Life of Struggle: Farewell to Herman Gorter” by Anton Pannekoek. One of Gorter’s closest friends and a talented theoretician, Pannkeok deeply appreciated the breadth of his companions’ works as well as their artistic and political significance. One excerpt from Pannekoek’s written goodbye to his friend simply regales him as a force of nature,” among many other personal compliments. 

While reading these obituaries and reflections it struck me, that the deep personal bonds of these men were not merely theoretically based, but out of a powerful love for each other and for the struggle which they devoted their lives to.

32 years after that fateful September day, Pannekoek himself passed away, living to the ripe old age of 87.  However, unlike the relatively young Gorter, few were still around to appreciate the accomplished theoretician and only one single reflection on his passing was published as far as I could tell. This lone acknowledgment was made in the 9th issue of a magazine by the Dutch section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, titled simply “Anton Pannekoek has Died.” The brief paragraphs summarize some loosely connected information about the Dutchman and most were devoted to political point scoring against the deteriorating Stalinist disaster in Russia. This neglect struck me, for not even the brilliant Paul Mattick gave much time to Pannekoek’s passing, despite being one of his most brilliant admirers. 

So since the day of his passing, April 28th, has recently passed us by, I’d like to give a proper goodbye to Pannekoek. He was single handedly the man who made me a Communist and his theoretical contributions are second to only titans such as Marx Engels and sits among his contemporaries. Spanning disciplines, theories and other major projects, he devoted his life to what he called “the harmony of mankind.” A materialist and a scientist till his death, he gamely and happily engaged his contemporary thinkers in the earnest hope to advance Marxism. More than a “Father of Council Communism,” he was a deeply passionate and energetic spirit. The conclusion to the original edition of his magnum opus sums up what he found in his boundless exploration of social science, stating 

It is not possible as yet to foresee the coming forms of social strife and activity in the different countries. But we may say for certain that, once they understand it, the consciousness of their great task as a bright star will guide the workers through all the difficulties on their path. And that the certainty that by their work and fight they build up the power and unity of the working class, the brotherhood of mankind, will elate their hearts and brighten their minds. And that the fight will not end until working mankind has won complete freedom.3

-Bert Rodney

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  1. Meijer, Canne. 1927. “Herman Gorter – Obituary.” Www.marxists.org. 1927. https://www.marxists.org/archive/canne-meijer/1927/obituary.htm.
  2. Ibid.
  3. ———. 1947  “Workers’ Councils (1947).” Marxists.org. 2024. https://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1947/workers-councils.htm#h37.