Remembering Cajo Brendel

Last June, Cajo Brendel died. He was 91 and had a long full life behind him, in which his passionate belief in the revolutionary potential of the autonomous working class struggle was the leitmotiv.

For Cajo, as for Pannekoek and the other Dutch left communists who were his friends and comrades, the concept of autonomous class struggle had a meaning that went beyond the one which others in the internationalist communist left, especially the Italian left, gave to it. For the latter, it implied autonomy from the politics and organizations of the capitalist class and its state, but since they saw “the party” as an emanation of the working class, as long as it adhered to “the communist program”, they saw no contradiction between the defense of the concept of a party leading and organizing the working class revolution and the concept of autonomous struggle. But for Cajo and his comrades the contradiction was very real. For them, the latter concept implied the self-organization of the class.

The old concept of a revolution lead by the party that the Italian left continued to defend belonged to a by-gone era, so Pannekoek theorized already in 1916. Without developing a full theory of the periodization of capitalism, Pannekoek stated that in 1914 (the collapse of the International and the start of the inter-imperialist war) a new period had begun which required “a new socialism, a new workers movement with a new character”.(1) That new character was autonomous, not just from bourgeois politics but from leadership organizations in general. The new workers movement would arise spontaneously from its position in capitalist society and would take its struggle into its own hands, rejecting the (nation-based, parliamentary, trade-unionist, etc) tactics of the “old workers movement.” It is the only conceivable way in which the proletarian revolution can win. Only through the development of self-organization in and of the struggle, culminating in the workers’ councils, can our class acquire the power to overthrow capitalism and organize a new society. The 1920’s (the state-capitalist outcome of the revolution in Russia and the huge development of self-organized struggle, especially in Germany where the Dutch comrades were very involved) confirmed Pannekoek’s view perfectly, in a negative as well as in a positive way.

Cajo Brendel came to these positions in the 1930’s. His father had gone bankrupt in the depression and young Cajo moved to a working class neighborhood in The Hague where he worked in a factory in between long bouts of unemployment, and where he eventually met members of the GIC. Discussing with them made him move “from kindergarten to the university” as he later put it, and he joined the group. The GIC (Group of International Communists), founded in 1926, was a regroupment of left communists in the Netherlands, after the defeat of the revolution in Germany and elsewhere, which tried to draw, on a Marxist basis, lessons from what they experienced and to deepen their theory of the new workers movement. But those major defeats had taken their toll on the working class and the tide had turned against the class struggle. The return of submissiveness, of passivity, condemned revolutionaries to isolation, and to inevitable debates over what should be done. The GIC understood that it could not swim against the tide and focused on theoretical work. But some sections found these debates on crisis-theory and on how society after the revolution could be organized too theoretical and split. Among them the section in The Hague, in which Cajo participated. So he went with the “activist” wing, quite surprisingly in light of his further evolution.

When the Second World War began, Cajo was mobilized and he distributed an internationalist leaflet among the soldiers. Later he wound up in Berlin as a POW. After the war, left communists in the Netherlands regrouped in the Communistenbond, which, after its paper, was usually called the Spartacusbond.(2) I remember as a kid reading a popular novel in which one character was talking about the Spartacuscommunists, who were the only ones to oppose the Dutch colonial war in Indonesia. Their stand for internationalism against the flood of chauvinist propaganda did not go unnoticed. Cajo was one of them. He remained on the editorial board of Spartacus until the group split in 1964. Cajo went with the dissenters who went on to publish the monthly “Daad en Gedachte” (Action and Thought). Unfortunately, the political disagreements behind this split were never made entirely clear (personal tensions seem to have played a role). But by the very choice of its name, the new group wanted to mark a clear difference with the Spartacusbond. With this name the group wanted to affirm its materialist view that action precedes thought, and that thought originates from action and thus differentiate itself from all idealist viewpoints, as well as from the Spartacusbond, which defended the need for revolutionary propaganda. D&G rejected this, at least in theory. In practice, Cajo and his comrades enthusiastically and energetically defended and propagated revolutionary positions all their lives.

I met Cajo in 1973, at a “council communist congress,” where anarchists defended the idea that trade unions were working class organs and that we should work with them and within them to democratize them. In our common attack on this position, antithetical to council communism, we found each other. This and subsequent encounters, as well as Cajo’s book on Pannekoek,(3) had a deep influence on me and others in the small group I was a part of. We were not the only ones. For many, coming to realize that Trotskyism had a bourgeois core or dissatisfied by the superficiality and lack of method of anarchism, Cajo was a breath of fresh air. He taught us to “think Marxist,” to analyze events on the basis of the material conditions which gave birth to them, to understand social movements and political forces not on the basis of what they proclaimed and how they saw themselves but on the basis of their real position and role within the class contradictions that define society. The events of that period seemed a clear confirmation of Cajo’s views. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, many wildcat strikes spontaneously erupted during which the trade unions unmasked themselves as defensive organs of capitalism against the workers’ struggle, and in which workers organized themselves on the basis of assemblies and strike committees. Cajo expected that this wildcat movement would become more and more extensive, that the state would use its coercive means to suppress it, and that this confrontation would give the autonomous workers struggle a revolutionary character. The class struggle would become a struggle against state power. The strike movements would move beyond what was specific to each and become extensive, general, conflicts in which the strike committees would become forced to take on general tasks, that is, to act as workers councils. In this way, the organizational expressions of the autonomous workers struggle would evolve into the organizational framework of the new society.

While he expanded our theoretical understanding, Cajo paradoxically also emphasized that theory played no role in that process. The working class struggle would become revolutionary, not because of its ideas but despite them, he stressed. “Theory”, he liked to say, “does not show the way; it can only explain which way is followed and why”. More than once our discussions turned to this question. To us it seemed that explaining which way is followed and why, was in effect showing the way forward, and that was in our view what council communists were doing and should be doing. The comrades of D&G disagreed and said it was contradictory to see the revolution as a development of collective self-organization on the one hand, and postulating the need for a politically based revolutionary minority on the other. You can’t say that the workers struggle has to get rid of leaders and specialists and at the same time proclaim yourselves to be indispensable political specialists. One of us asked the D&G-comrades provocatively whether their rejection of any role for theory in the class struggle did not imply that their own activity was in essence a hobby, like collecting stamps. One of them answered indignantly that there was a huge difference between their social passion, grounded in reality, and the alienated, isolated activity of the stamp-collector. Cajo said he was all for going to workers struggles (and indeed he did so many times), yet not to teach the workers but to learn from them. But what do we do with what we learn from them, we would ask, is that not something we want to give back? And so on it went. It was a discussion that never came to an end.

A few years later, an international regroupment of groups and individuals who all shared our position that a working class revolution can only succeed if it is international and autonomous, outside and against all unions, parties, and states, that pretend to represent the workers, led to the formation of the International Communist Current (ICC). The circle I was a part of decided to join this process and this led to a cooling of our relations with Cajo and D&G. We joined the ICC because it seemed logical that, if the struggle of our class must come together internationally, so must we. We had to shed all localism, all “small-is-beautiful” tendencies. But we also joined the ICC because we saw in its positions and goals a continuation of the fight of Pannekoek and the Dutch/German left, of its insistence on autonomous struggle, on general assemblies and workers’ councils, instead of unions and parties. The only substantial difference between us, and D&G in this regard, so it seemed, was on whether politically organized minorities play a role in the revolutionary process. Pannekoek and the other theoreticians of the Dutch left never denied that they did, but focused on their critique of the Social-Democratic and Bolshevik party-model, the party that wants to organize and lead the working class, to take power in its name, which they saw as an expression of the bourgeoisie, not the working class, and an obstacle to the development of the latter’s autonomous struggle, which has to be a collective emancipation, getting rid of all dependence on leaders, or else fail. But what was the task of revolutionaries who rejected that party-model? Henk Canne Meijer, a metalworker who was one of the founders of the GIC, articulated the position of the GIC on this question in his text “Das Werden einer neuen Arbeiterbewegung” (“The Rise of a New Labor Movement”).(4) In this brilliant pamphlet, Canne Meijer devotes of course quite a bit of space on what revolutionaries should not do (the old party-model) but that doesn’t mean he saw them as irrelevant to the revolutionary process, as Cajo later would. On the contrary, in his view, the importance of the new revolutionary groups devoted to the self-emancipation of their class, “is much greater than that of the most powerful party propaganda could ever be. As long as only isolated groups sporadically here and there set about, through serious study, making themselves acquainted with the movement of social forces, so long will the importance of this work fail to directly make an impact. But as soon as they become more general, when they form a consciously widespread movement, when work groups arise everywhere for the purpose of imparting to the workers the true (scientific) insight into the social processes of life; then the picture is altered. Their task is then no longer small and modest, but gigantic and all mastering.” In contrast to the substitutionist parties, “the content of their propaganda does not convert the groups into organs of domination, but into organs through which the class itself derives the necessary knowledge and thus is in a position to shake off all dominance.” He insisted that such groups are “the organs through which the class strives to come to an understanding of its true situation” and are thus not standing outside the class, even though in times of defeat and passivity, it may appear that way. He wrote “at the present time it is only like-minded people who can combine in small groups. It is better that revolutionary workers in thousands of small groups work on the coming to consciousness of their class than that their activity be subjected in a large organization to the striving for dominance on the part of their leadership. That does not preclude collaboration of the groups among themselves, but rather makes it more necessary. If it shown in practice that such collaboration has been attended with success, then in truth is the smelting together into a great organization of like-minded persons surely accomplished. But this smelting together into an organic unity can only be the result of a process of development.” But Canne Meijer’s “at the present time” was 1935, a dark time for the workers struggle. We felt, in the mid-70’s, that times were different; we thought that we could sniff revolution in the air, that the process of development which Canne Meijer mentioned was taking place and “the smelting together into a great organization of like-minded persons” could be accomplished.

Cajo had a very negative view of the formation of the ICC. He had some important disagreements, such as on the Russian revolution, which he, like Pannekoek since the 1920’s, saw as a bourgeois revolution, while for the ICC (pointing to the role of the soviets and factory committees) it was a proletarian revolution that was defeated. Significant as such disagreements were, the main divergence arose from the fact that D&G no longer shared the view of Canne Meijer and the GIC on the role of political groups. For Cajo, historical materialism implied that all can be reduced to consequences of the evolving production process and that by its very place in the production process, the proletariat will be forced to demolish capitalism, without a pre-existing conscious will to do so, and thus without any need for political groups to intervene in this inevitable dynamic. Cajo predicted that the ICC would become either an old-style party trying to lead the working class and thus become an obstacle on its way, or a sect beset by splits. (5) In hindsight, his prediction was pretty much on the mark. It might not have been inevitable, but it happened. It might have been avoided, if the young ICC would have taken some of the warnings of Canne Meijer in the previous quoted text to heart. He warned new groups of the danger of being driven by the goal of their own growth (as the ICC increasingly was): “Groups which still today wish to become ‘big’ -- big in the sense that the organization grows big and powerful -- find themselves on the same path that the old labor movement has taken. They still bear the distinguishing marks of the old labor movement, where the organization ‘leads,’ as an apparatus, and the individual member subjects himself to this leadership. …. The individual wants to subject himself to the principles which he holds to be correct; in reality he subjects himself to the organizational apparatus”.

The first task of political groups, according to Canne Meijer, is to deepen their theoretical grasp. Without that, their likely fate is to succumb to an immediatist activism. “The insufficient theoretical foundation becomes so dangerous to the new groups for the very reason that it leads to unconsidered and aimless actions. When impatience instead of insight becomes the counsellor of action, one seeks to drive the workers into all possible actions. …. This becomes at last a consciously applied method for ‘revolutionizing’ the working class and ‘educating’ it to the class struggle. And so their language is fearfully ‘revolutionary.’ …. This gives them the feeling of being very revolutionary and the conviction that they are front-rank fighters in the proletarian revolution. But all that is accomplished by it is that the revolutionary impatience is discharged in strong words and explodes like loose powder, without injury to the ruling class. …. The attempt by such methods to make the proletariat ‘ripe’ for revolution merely demonstrates that these ‘front-rank fighters’ themselves still lack the most elementary insight into the conditions of the proletarian struggle for emancipation.”

In the subsequent decades, Cajo remained very active, despite the fact that his health was deteriorating. He wrote numerous articles and pamphlets, some of which remain very much worth reading. Some are available on the web. (6) Échanges et Mouvement, a group in which Cajo participated, has announced it will publish a political biography and a bibliography of Cajo, as well as an anthology of his texts. A laudable initiative. Cajo continued to participate in many debates and meetings, always ardently defending his views. I never participated with him in strike movements, but he was present in several, and, knowing Cajo, it’s hard to imagine that he only listened without offering his opinions as well. Cajo always told us not to focus on what people say about what they’re doing but to look at their real practice. Applying that criterion to him, I’m tempted to conclude that, despite his denial of the impact of revolutionary theory, he really worked hard to have a real impact. And he succeeded. His ideas are part of the bloodstream of ideas that are debated internationally and in which, in the words of Canne Meijer, “is revealed the reorientation of the thinking of the class.” He’s dead now, but his ideas are very much alive.

Cajo advocated a “realism, which sees in the production of material necessities the key to a clear understanding of society; which understands that the way in which those needs are fulfilled determines the character of society, and that any change in the way in which the material necessities are produced, causes a change in the character of society, another relation between the classes that exist in it, another struggle between them.” (7), Sound advice. However, since the last quarter of the 20th century, tremendous changes have occurred “in the way in which the material necessities are produced,” and Cajo contributed little to the understanding of how this has caused “a change in the character of society” and of the class struggle. Even his close friend Henri Simon of Échanges admitted, in his personal remembrance of Cajo, that in his later years there was a certain rigidity in his thinking, a lack of openness to new ideas, which, together with his physical decline, contributed to the demise of D&G in 1997.

At the heart of our disagreements with Cajo was his deterministic view of history. He thought so too. For him, the victory of the proletarian revolution over capitalism was as ineluctable as capitalism’s victory over feudalism. Far from us to want to replace such a vision with one that puts an autonomous will or idea in the driver’s seat. IP bases itself on the Marxist method and its historical materialism, so we agree with the general position that the mode of production shapes how humans relate to each other and thereby also how they think and what they want. However, over the years, IP has become increasingly critical of a mechanistic interpretation of historical materialism, of a teleological Marxism, that sees socialism as pre-ordained, programmed by history, of a productivist Marxism that sees revolution as the simple result of the productive forces developing to a critical point, of a vulgar materialist determinism that rigidly separates action and thought and sees the latter as a passive effect of the former. I admit that these ideas can be found in some of the writings of the best Marxist thinkers: Engels, Marx himself, Luxemburg, Pannekoek…but they have also written things that undermine such views. To explain the former ideas in an historical materialist way, we can point to the general influence of the industrial revolution on the human mind. The tendency to construct “iron laws,” that were as predictable as a machine, was not limited to Marxism. As the role of knowledge in production increased, especially since the second half of the 20th century, the growing complexity of the productive process went hand in hand with a growing awareness of the complexity of other processes as well – including social processes. This complexity implies that contingent factors may play a role that makes those processes unpredictable. That doesn’t mean that all “laws” deduced by Marxist analysis should be tossed overboard. All these “laws” are tendencies that describe but a part of reality. The later Marx made that point. I think he understood, as well as Luxemburg and Pannekoek, that social being determines consciousness and that consciousness in its turn changes social being. His view of the relation between action and thought was dialectical, Pannekoek stressed. Marxists reject a dualistic (matter/spirit) worldview but that they also reject vulgar materialism for which only what’s tangible is real. “In human beings”, Pannekoek wrote in his text “Historical Materialism”, (8) “the material and the spiritual [cultural] elements are always united, you can’t separate them… Human needs are not just those of the stomach, but also of the mind and the heart... in human labor, action and thought are always joined; it’s an artificial abstraction to want to separate them.” Yet this abstraction has an historical sense, Pannekoek continued. But if we separate, for the sake of historical analysis, something that is really one, we should be very careful not to fall into reductionist schematism. History is indeed propelled by man’s interaction with his conditions of survival but consciousness is an active part of that process:

“History consists of human acts. Man stands as an organism with specific needs –required for his survival -- in a natural environment, from which he must satisfy those needs. His needs and his environment have an impact on him; they are the cause of the acts through which he assures his survival. He has this in common with all living beings; but to the degree a higher stage of development in the organic world is reached, a spiritual element increasingly inserts itself in between impact and satisfaction, an urge and a will. In human development, to this an ever more dominant consciousness is added.

While now and then, need may cause original urges to flare up as spontaneous will, usually the process works its way through the human mind, through thought, the idea, the conscious will. The needs and the environment impact the mind and generate thoughts and goals, which in turn cause actions.”

So instead of the idea that consciousness comes only after the act, Pannekoek offers a more complex view: “Thought, the idea, is the mediator between the impact of social factors on man, and his historical act.” …. All the actions of humans occur through the intervention of the human mind”. For Pannekoek, that implied that political groups are part of that mediation: “their propaganda joins itself to the direct impact of living experience and thus accelerates the understanding of its essence.” Pannekoek stressed that consciousness is a product of history, not a mere reflection of the state of the production process at a given time. It does not start on an empty page: “… the impact of all previous situations is deposited into the content of consciousness.” Not just the past and the present influence consciousness, but so does the future, because of our capacity to anticipate. The actions of humans arise not only from being forced to react to material conditions created by the development of the productive forces but also from our imagination, which distinguishes us from robots.

Pannekoek also warned against schematically equating “infrastructure,” productive forces and “the material world” on the one hand, and ‘superstructure’, thought and consciousness, on the other. “Science, our knowledge of natural forces, our ability to work with them, is also part of the productive forces”, he wrote, “Technology contains a material but also a very strong spiritual element.” Today, in the age of information-technology, even much more so then when he wrote this. That they are intangible doesn’t mean that thought processes are not an active, material force in history. They are and their role increases, together with the development of society. That too is a law, a tendency of which socialist revolution would be a logical expression. Furthermore, those thought processes as they evolve into different domains such as the sciences, arts, religion, and political discourse, maintain a relative autonomy. They are not only mediating between man’s material conditions and his praxis, they also have their specific dynamic and history, their own characteristics (which may open opportunities for praxis not necessarily favorable to capitalism) that differentiate them from being mere reflections of the stage of development of the productive forces. On the other hand it should be noted that the law of value has penetrated all these domains thoroughly, especially in the last few decades. In that sense it is true that the relative autonomy that they enjoyed under the formal domination of capital has been destroyed. The market has swallowed everything. The enterprise (the capital-labor relation) is now the framework of the development of knowledge; market-share is its goal. Yet at the same time, the growing dependency of capitalism on knowledge implies a growing dependency on a more educated, more informed, working class, which, for capitalism, makes it increasingly challenging to make that class act and think as variable capital, to make it look at the world and its own situation through the “eyes” of capital. This working class will not face the crisis into which capitalism submerges society as a situation in which the threat of starvation leaves it no choice but to overthrow capitalism. The gigantic strides in productivity that capitalism has made, makes it possible to avoid such that precise situation and this capacity may even remain somewhat intact after an economic collapse, at least in the stronger countries. The crisis informs the working class today in a broader, more complex way: attacks on its direct living conditions, but also the destruction of the global environment, growing unemployment and insecurity but also the general lack of a future; the increasing, unacceptable, accumulation of unnecessary pain. The working class needs the direct struggle in the workplace as source of growing self-awareness and confidence, but there’s no guaranty that, through confrontation with state-repression, it will escalate into revolution, as Cajo expected. What also feeds the struggle and makes it possible for it to become revolutionary is a changing understanding of the world.

Consciousness is a material force whose importance in all social processes is greater than ever: in the production process, as well as in the revolutionary process. Genuine revolutionary groups and thinkers, such as Cajo, are a crucial part of that process -- more so than he wanted to admit.



1. Anton Pannekoek, “Der Imperialismus und die Aufgaben des Proletariats”, in ‘Vorbote, Internationale Marxistische Rundschau’, January 1916.

2. Spartacus began in 1942 under the impulse of Stan Poppe, a survivor of a clandestine proletarian group that was crushed during the occupation. In 1944 most remaining members of the GIC such as Jan Appel and Canne Meijer joined the Spartacusbond.

3. Cajo Brendel, “Anton Pannekoek, theoretikus van het socialisme”, SUN, Nijmegen, 1970 (Also published in German).

4. A partial English translation is on-lnie at John Gray (also in other languages).

5. Ironically, Cajo got along better with the ICC (at least according to the ICC-press) later on, after all those who had any affinity with him had either left or been expelled from the group, and after the ICC had adopted a resolution declaring “councilism the greatest danger for the proletariat.”

6. John Gray

7. Cajo Brendel, op.cit., p.19, our translation.

8. This and subsequent quotes are from: Anton Pannekoek, ‘Het Historisch Materialisme’, De Nieuwe Tijd, 1919, reprinted bij Spartacus editions, Amsterdam, 1971 (Our translation)

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