Workers' Councils

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This book follows a formula its publisher has had success with in recent years. Take a neglected but significant piece of leftist literature, frequently issued as a pamphlet the first time around, and get it back into print, taking the time to make it look nice along the way.

Anton Pannekoek

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Sunday, October 5 2003, 4:36 PM


This book follows a formula its publisher has had success with in recent years. Take a neglected but significant piece of leftist literature, frequently issued as a pamphlet the first time around, and get it back into print, taking the time to make it look nice along the way. The idea, it seems, is to attract people unwilling or unable to find the hard-to-read originals. And, while you might be inclined to grumble at the price increase this approach makes necessary, it's hard to complain about well-intentioned lefties bringing the news to the design-savvy masses of the desktop publishing generation.

But I'm going to complain anyway. While Pannekoek's text is worthy of your time, I'm not sure that it's more worthy of your time than leftist literature that's already in print. Given the choice between spending ten hours with this Dutch astronomer or with Marx, Bakunin, or Emma Goldman I'd opt for the classics. They may be older, but they are no less 'dated.'

Here is Pannekoek describing the establishment of true communism:

"This means a total revolution in the spiritual life of man. He has now learned to see society, to know community. In former times, under capitalism, his view was concentrated on the small part related with his business, his job, himself and his family. As a dim, unknown background society hovered behind his small visible world . . . Now, on the contrary, society comes into the full light, transparent and knowable."

Sing along with me: "I can see clearly now, the rain is gone." I'm all for stirring up the desire for a better world, but this fantasy seems no more helpful than Plato's injunction to step outside of the cave.

The biggest problem in the modern world is not a failure to see, but a failure to care. It's not like the lords of industry looking down on capitalism from the eighty-fifth floor have a hard time seeing the 'background.' Not to mention that there are lots of people out there who understand perfectly well how their jobs at Kinko's fit into the grand scheme of things.

Forgive me if I sound unduly harsh. There is much of value in Workers' Councils. But the book's presentation provokes me to pessimism. It's inexcusable, in a political tract about the need for workers' councils, that its translator receives no credit. Mind you, the translation itself leaves something to be desired -- the 'spiritual labor' that is mentioned hundreds of times should have been rendered as 'intellectual' or 'mental' labor -- but that doesn't give AK Press the right to consign its creator to oblivion.

The cover is equally troublesome. A quick glance at the table of contents makes it clear that Robert Barsky is the driving force behind this edition, conducting three of the four interviews that preface Pannekoek's text and penning a short introduction as well. But the eye-catching cover design advertises an introduction by Noam Chomsky in characters nearly as large as those reserved for the author's name. That decision would have been questionable even if Chomsky had written the intro. Since he obviously did not, however, it is hard to interpret as anything other than a marketing ploy.

To be sure, I'd prefer to live in a world in which East Coast intellectuals represent a better sales technique than anorexic women's bodies. But when you're trying to market true revolution, you have to do better than dropping the same names as C-SPAN and NPR. Interviewed by Barksy, Chomsky praises Workers' Councils for its clarity and directness. Unfortunately, his words work just as well to describe the problem with this new edition: "It is obvious in the sense that children could understand it. It's not like quantum physics.pparently, the world of alternative publishing needs a refresher course in the meaning of exploitation.

Workers' Councils is available from AK Press 

Copyright © 2003 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
 

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