Plekhanov 1907

On A. Pannekoek’s Pamphlet

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 93-97.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘Plekhanov’s review of Pannekoek’s pamphlet was published in the journal Sovremennaya Zhizn (Modern Life) no.1, 1907. This was a Menshevik journal published in Moscow in 1906-07.’

Anton Pannekoek, Socialism and Religion (translated from the German by A Ratner, edited by P Rumyantsev, Cheap Library of the Znaniye Society, no 121, price five kopeks, 1906).

Mr P Rumyantsev, who edited the Russian translation of this pamphlet, wrote a brief foreword to it. Here it is in full.

This pamphlet represents a lecture delivered in Bremen by Dr Anton Pannekoek of Leiden, Holland, on 14 September 1905, to a very large meeting of workers and sponsored by the Education Committee of the Bremen Trades Cartel and the Social-Democratic Union. The consistency of the author’s views on historical materialism, the lucidity and popular style of his presentation, prompt us to recommend the pamphlet to Russian readers, especially since such a large gap is felt in our literature on the relationship of socialism to religion.

There is indeed a large gap in literature – and not only Russian literature – on the question of the relationship of socialism to religion. Therefore, it can be said with certainty that this pamphlet will be read by very many people; that is why I think it my duty to devote special attention to it here.

I shall begin by saying that Anton Pannekoek is not pronounced Pannekek but Pannekuk, since the Dutch ‘oe’ is like our Russian ‘u’. So now we may pronounce his name properly.

Pannekoek’s pamphlet does not bridge any gaps for the simple reason that it contains too many gaps itself. You cannot plug a hole with a hole, as some wiseacre remarked. And if Mr Rumyantsev deems it necessary to recommend Pannekoek’s pamphlet to Russian readers he is simply confirming the presence of numerous gaps in his own world-outlook.

Anton Pannekoek undoubtedly possesses a sufficiently remarkable ability as well as good intentions. He belongs to the left – Marxist – wing of Dutch Social-Democracy. But even though he is a ‘Dr’ or, more truly, because he is one, he did not graduate from a strict Marxist school. This was already noticeable from the philosophical articles with which he transgressed in the columns of Neue Zeit [1] two years ago; the articles were very poor. And this pamphlet on socialism and religion is conclusive evidence that our young Dutch Marxist has mastered little of his teacher’s method.

He says:

There are two scientific systems for which we are indebted to Karl Marx and which, taken together, provide the foundation of our ultimate aim. They are political economy and historical materialism. (p 29).

But that is not at all so. There is one ‘system’, the system of dialectical materialism, which includes both political economy and the scientific explanation of the historical process and much else besides. Anyone who has studied Capital understands that this outstanding work is nothing but the materialist explanation of economic relations in bourgeois society, which itself is of a transient, that is, historical nature. Many people describe Capital as an historical work, but by far not all of these comprehend the whole profound meaning of this description. Anton Pannekoek is obviously among those who are completely blind to the fact that Marx’s fundamental economic views are permeated throughout with the materialist conception of history. For a Marxist, this is an unpardonable failing.

Further, in speaking of ‘bourgeois materialism’, A Pannekoek launches on talk about the bourgeois Enlighteners who ‘hoped by disseminating knowledge to tear the masses away from the priests and the feudal lords’. Perhaps you think he means the famous French materialists – Holbach, Diderot and Helvétius? You are wrong. He has in mind ‘the now rather outmoded popular writings of L Büchner’ (p 22). It is simply ridiculous. He asserts that ‘there was no trace of sociology’ in ‘bourgeois materialism’. That is untrue as regards Helvétius, in whose works one can find extremely interesting and remarkable rudiments of the materialist conception of history. But A Pannekoek went through a poor school and therefore has not the slightest notion about French materialism. He attributes to the materialists the ‘establishment’ of the truth that ‘ideas are born in the brain-matter’ (p 29). The classical materialists expressed themselves otherwise.

Let us go on to religion. On page 8 of Pannekoek’s pamphlet there is the following remark:

In the question we are now discussing, we understand by religion that which has always been its essential feature: the belief in a supernatural being who is supposed to govern the world and to direct the destinies of men.

That, too, is wrong and in two respects. Firstly, the majority of religions ascribed the governing of the world not to one but to many supernatural beings (polytheism). And secondly, belief in the existence of such beings still does not constitute the main distinctive feature of religion. Our author has a poor conception of the process which one English researcher called ‘the making of religion’. [2]

Religion begins only when a tribe starts to believe that between the tribe and the particular supernatural being or beings there is a certain relationship which is binding not only on the people but even on those beings. The main distinctive feature of religion is belief in a god or gods. Pannekoek is very much mistaken if he imagines that god means the same thing as a supernatural being. Of course, every god is a supernatural being; but not every supernatural being by far is considered a god. To become a god, such a being must go through an entire evolution.

Note the grounds upon which Pannekoek makes his hapless reference to the distinctive feature of religion. There are people who say that because the contemporary proletariat displays much selflessness and devotion to a lofty ideal, it cannot be said, as Pannekoek does by the way, that this class is becoming less and less religious. These people cannot even conceive of non-religious morality. Pannekoek’s reply to them is that morality and religion are two distinct things and that the essential feature of religion is belief in supernatural beings. Then he goes on:

Hitherto, all of man’s lofty and moral impulses were closely connected with this belief and were displayed in the garb of religion. This can be readily understood when one considers that the whole world-outlook was embodied in religion, so that everything beyond the pale of everyday life sought refuge in religion; for everything the origin of which was unknown, a supernatural explanation was sought and believed to be found in religion. The fact that the virtues and moral urges which are recognised by all men occupy first place in religious teaching does not, however, constitute the essential and particular feature of religion; its essence is rather the justification which it provides for them, the way in which it explains them as emanations of God’s will. We know a natural cause of the higher moral urges of the proletariat; we know they stem from its special class position.

So, ‘we’ explain the higher moral ‘urges’ of the proletariat by a natural cause. Commendable, indeed. And how do ‘we’ explain the moral ‘urges’ of the other classes in society? By supernatural causes? Probably and even certainly not. But if not, then we should speak, not of the proletariat, but in general of the man whom Marx called social man. Marxists do, in fact, consider that the development of the morality of social man is conditioned by the development of the social relations, which in turn is conditioned by the development of the social forces of production. And precisely because Marxists are convinced of this, Pannekoek’s assertion that ‘virtues’ are explained ‘as emanations of God’s will’, sounds highly strange to them. Surely it would follow from this that virtues arise on a completely idealist basis. I am willing to concede that this is not confusion of thought, but simply an unfortunate expression (perhaps even an unfortunate translation: I do not have the original at hand); but no matter how the muddle has arisen it is there and will only mislead the reader. Then, what is ‘this religion’ Pannekoek talks about? The one whose distinctive feature is belief in supernatural beings? But did he himself not say that this essential feature belongs to all religions? Why then ‘this’ religion? Again an extremely unfortunate expression, which confuses the author’s meaning. Finally – and this, of course, is the most important point – it is again clear from our last extract that Pannekoek is completely unfamiliar with the historical process of the formation of religion. He thinks that ‘hitherto’ morality was always ‘closely connected with this religion’, that is, with belief in supernatural beings. But that is wrong. In the first stages of social development, morality existed quite independently of belief in supernatural beings. Confirmation of this may be found in the Russian translation of Tylor’s Primitive Culture. If Pannekoek knew this fact, he had only to cite it in order to refute those who unreasonably affirm that there cannot be morality without religion. But he did not know this, although he ought to have known it, so he had to launch into perplexing arguments that demonstrated only too plainly that he himself, to use a German expression, was not sitting firmly in the saddle.

On page 23 of his pamphlet, Pannekoek says: ‘This exposition will suffice to show that the old bourgeois materialism and the new bourgeois religiosity [3] are both directly opposed to the proletarian world-outlook.’ In regard to religiosity, this is correct, but in relation to bourgeois materialism it is totally incorrect.

According to Pannekoek, there is no trace of sociology in ‘bourgeois materialism’. I said earlier that this was not quite so, now I shall take it for granted and shall ask: does this prove that ‘bourgeois materialism’ is opposed to the world-outlook of the proletariat? No, it does not. It proves only that ‘bourgeois materialism’ was one-sided in comparison with present-day dialectical materialism. We cannot speak of opposition. ‘Bourgeois materialism’, or to be more exact, the classical materialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, did not ‘die away’, as Pannekoek assures us, but was reborn in the ‘system’ of Marx.

Pannekoek’s final conclusion is that there will be no place under socialism for belief in supernatural forces. This is right, but it has been known since Marx’s time. Pannekoek confined himself to advancing several incorrect postulates as proof of this correct idea and revealed his utter ignorance of the subject. That is not enough.

I have far from exhausted all Pannekoek’s errors. But those I have dealt with do indicate the need to approach this pamphlet sceptically. In offering it to their Russian readers, the publishers of the Cheap Library indeed presented them with an article that is truly too ‘cheap’.

The reader will see that there is nothing to thank Mr Rumyantsev for either. We have very many people around just now editing and ‘recommending’ works on subjects about which they themselves have not the faintest idea. These people, zealously disseminating their self-opinionated ignorance among the public, are the curse of our popular – mostly translated – literature.


Notes are by Plekhanov, except those by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’.

1. Die Neue Zeit (New Times) – a theoretical journal of German Social-Democracy published in Stuttgart from 1883 to 1923. In 1885-94 Engels published a series of his works in it and gave constant advice to its editorial board, often criticising it for deviations from Marxism. From the late 1890s the journal began systematic publication of revisionist articles. Plekhanov has in mind two articles by Pannekoek: ‘Historischer Materialismus und Religion’ (‘Historical Materialism and Religion’) published in nos 31 and 32, 1904 (Year 22, Part 2, pp 133 and 180) and ‘Klassenwissenschaft und Philosophie’ (‘Class Sciences and Philosophy’) published in no 19, 1905 (Year 23, Part 1, p 604) – Editor.

2. The words ‘The making of religion’ are written by Plekhanov in English – Editor.

3. Prior to this he had said correctly that religiosity is spreading among the contemporary bourgeoisie.