Anton Pannekoek was born in 1873 to average middle-class parents, but he became a prominent astronomer and Marxist theoretician.
Jan Martinus Smit, his physics and astronomy teacher at secondary school, was a key figure in that development.
On Saturday afternoons, Smit went hiking with his favourite pupils, and while botanizing they discussed the social hardships and ideas of the times.
Smit, an outstanding teacher, was undoubtedly inspired by socialism, of which he had already been an ardent adherent for some time.
In 1899 young Anton, who by then was studying astronomy in Leiden, read Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Equality.
He later described this as a revelation and a turning point in his life.
Anton, who had been a Liberal, now turned to socialism, immediately becoming a founder member of the Leiden branch of the SDAP, the Dutch Social Democratic Labour Party. Johanna Nassau Noordewier, a socialist even before they met and whom he married in 1903, was the final factor in his embracing socialism.
Within the SDAP, Pannekoek was on the left from the very beginning, and this led to a series of conflicts with the party leader, Pieter Jelles Troelstra. In 1903, the year of the General Railway Strike, Pannekoek accused Troelstra (whom Pannekoek nicknamed “Troeleman” (Baby Troel)) of being weak and meddlesome. Troelstra had urged workers to refrain from striking for the second time. In Pannekoek’s view, workers were perfectly able to decide on their own whether or not to strike. Did Troelstra think he was infallible? (Pannekoek archive no. 209).
The lack of respect Pannekoek had for Troelstra, and for leaders in general, contrasted sharply with the respect he felt for “workers who with calm assurance went their own way, and continued to better themselves. I, too, felt I leaned on them”. (Herinneringen, p. 149). His role model was Hein Marks from the SDAP Leiden branch. Marks was a carpenter, “a small, energetic, robust fellow, reliable. I used to visit him at his home, and I learnt much from him about the practical side of workers’ issues.” (Herinneringen, p. 82)
Inspired by these fruitful encounters with the archetypal worker, Pannekoek became more and more left wing. He lived and worked in Germany for a time.
There, he found himself increasingly at odds with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and joined Rosa Luxemburg in opposing revisionism within social democracy.
Back in the Netherlands, he became an associate member of the Communist Party (SDP, which later became the CPH/CPN) in 1909.
But he loathed this party’s Leninist leading principle of the workers’ vanguard and gradually turned to council communism.
Together with his friend Herman Gorter, Pannekoek became one of the foremost theoreticians of this ultra-left current, which was based on the concept of the spontaneous self-organizing spirit of the working class, a concept that left no room for leaders or vanguards.
In the end, it was the wayward Rinus van der Lubbe, not Pannekoek or Gorter, who became the most famous council communist in history.
By 1921 Pannekoek no longer felt at ease in the Communist Party and he decided to renounce his membership and not to become a member of any party at all.
Until 1940 he was affiliated, though, to the “Groups of International Communists”, a rather pompous title for a group of at most ten individuals.
His work as an astronomer now assumed a more prominent role in his life. Pannekoek always tried to keep the worlds of science and politics separate. In 1944, during the Hunger Winter, when he was living in Arnhem, he wrote, by the light of a single candle, his memoirs about the labour movement and his life as an astronomer in two separate manuscripts. They were eventually published in a single volume in 1982.
During the war, Pannekoek buried his archive in his garden, and it was lost during the Battle of Arnhem. The postwar collection (Pannekoek died in 1960) is now housed at the IISH.
This contribution was written on the occasion of the Anton Pannekoek Symposium in June 2016.
Further records relating to Anton Pannekoek at the IISH can be found in:
- Anton Pannekoek Papers
- Canne Meyer Collection
- SDAP Leiden, file nr 1233 in SDAP archives
- Ben Sijes Papers
(text: Margreet Schrevel)