Topic: Lessons from the Russian Experience

Extracts from: ‘Notes on communist economy’ by Piet de Bruin (Jan Appel), 1928 (Part 1 of 3)

[I.1] The attempts that have been made in Russia to construct communism have drawn a field into the scope of practice that hitherto could only be treated by theory. Russia has attempted to build up economic life, as far as it concerns industry, according to communist principles … and has completely failed in doing so. The fact that the wage of the workers does not increase with the productivity of labor (H.R.H. in “Klassenstrijd”) (1) demonstrates this in a sufficient way. An increased productivity of the social production apparatus does not entitle to a larger social product. In other words, exploitation exists. Here H.R.H. thus proves that the Russian worker today is a wage laborer. One can dispense oneself from this way of affairs by pointing out that Russia is an agrarian country with private ownership of land, and that thereby the base of capitalist wage labor has to impose itself to the whole of economic life. Who is satisfied with this explanation indeed sees present Russia in its economic foundations, but has learned nothing from the tremendous effort of the Russians with regards to communist economy. However, doubts have been risen with many comrades about the method itself by which communism ought to be realized according to the Russians. To summarize this method in a few words: the workers expropriate the expropriators and put the means of production into the hands of the state, who organizes the branches of enterprise, and put them at the service of the community as a state monopoly.

The course of events in Russia was that the proletariat seized the enterprises and continued their functioning under their own leadership. The communist party gave guide lines according to which these enterprises had to join in communal, district and provincial councils, in order to tie the whole of economic life up in an organic unity. In this way the productive apparatus was built up by the living forces of the masses: it was the expression of the communist forces living within the proletariat. All forces were oriented towards a centralization of production. (…)

Here it lies in the nature of things that the leadership and the administration of production initially was in the hands of the masses, and likewise that they subsequently had to transfer all their powers to the central organizations. Whereas initially directors, communal economic councils, etc. were responsible to the masses, to the producers, henceforth they were responsible to the central leadership conducting the whole. Initially there was accountability towards [the rank and file] (“those below”), now there is accountability towards [the upper ranks] (“those at the top”).

In this way a tremendous concentration of the productive forces took place in Russia, unknown to any other country in the world. Woe betide the proletariat that has to engage in struggle against such a power apparatus!

Yet this has arrived. There is not the slightest doubt anymore: the Russian worker is a wage laborer, he is exploited, he will also have to struggle for his wage … against the most powerful apparatus known in the world. (…)

We want to point out here that, with this form of “communism”, the proletariat does not have the productive apparatus in its own hands. In appearance it is the “owner” of the means of production, but it does not dispose of them. (…)

[I.2] (…)

It has to be clear beyond any doubt that the producers do not hold the “management and the leadership of production” in their own hands and this already constitutes a very peculiar acceptation of Marx’ “association of free and equal producers”.

All this kind of plans bears the marks of the age in which they have originated: the age of mechanization. The productive apparatus becomes a fine mechanism that works through thousands and thousands of cog wheels; the parts of the production process interlock like the distributed activities of the “belt without end” that is applied in the modern enterprises (Ford). Here and there stand the managers of the production machine, who determine the running of the machine by their statistics.

These mechanistic plans are based upon the fundamental error that communism is in the first place a technical-organizational question, instead of an economical one, in which a new foundation of the relationship between product and producer has to be laid down. To this mechanization we therefore oppose that the basis has to be found upon which the producers can construct the Building of Production by themselves. This construction is a process from below and not from the top down. It is a process of concentration that is effected by the initiative of the producers and not one that falls down on us like bread from heaven. If we appropriate the experiences of the revolution and follow Marx’ indications we can get quite a way at this construction.

[I.3] Albeit Marx has given no “description” of communism, everyone knows that he adhered to the position of the “association of the free and equal producers”, ideas he adopted from the Paris Commune in particular. This association however is in no way suspended in the mid-air of “mutual aid”, but has a very “material” foundation. This sub-soil is the calculation of the time necessary to produce the products. For reasons of convenience we will call it here “calculation of value”, albeit it has nothing to do with “value” because time is a category different from value. Engels adhered to this point of view as well, as may appear from the following:

“Society can simply calculate how many hours of labour are contained in a steam-engine, a bushel of wheat of the last harvest, or a hundred square yards of cloth of a certain quality. It could therefore never occur to it still to express the quantities of labour put into the products, quantities which it will then know directly and in their absolute amounts, in a third product, in a measure which, besides, is only relative, fluctuating, inadequate, though formerly unavoidable for lack of a better one, rather than express them in their natural, adequate and absolute measure, time. (…) Hence, on the assumptions we made above, Society will not assign values to products.” (2)


[I.6] (…)

Without further occupying ourselves with state communism, we now want to proceed by examining how a “reasonable man” nowadays can still arrive at defending the “infantile” idea of Marx (…) to make the working hour the basic category of economic life, yes even at declaring it as the only possible foundation of communism. Having arrived at this point, we want to say immediately that these views have not been born at the writing desk in the first place, but are the product of dazzling revolutionary life itself. As far as we can oversee, there have been three major moments that got us out of echoing the “communist economists”. This was, in the first place, the spontaneous emergence and functioning of the soviet system, subsequently the emasculation of the soviets by the Russian state apparatus and, finally, the growing of state production into a new, hitherto unknown, form of dominance over the whole Society.

These facts forced us to a closer investigation, from which resulted that state communism has nothing to do with “Marxism”, either in its theory or in its practice. The practice of life, the Soviet system, put Marx’ “association of free and equal producers” into the foreground once again, as life itself opened its criticism of theory and practice of State communism at once. (…)

Marx’ “association” has thereby been put on the agenda by the revolutionary struggle itself. The shapes it takes at present could not have been indicated before 1917. Hence this “association” is not a “fabrication” but the fruit of bitter struggle. (To be continued).

1 ‘Klassenstrijd’ (“Class Struggle”) was a revue edited by Henriëtte Roland Holst-van der Schalk (‘H.R.H.’) and Henk Sneevliet that appeared from 1926 to 1928. It was subsequently continued with the title ‘De Nieuwe Weg’ (“The New Road”).

2 Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (1877); Part III: Socialism; IV. Distribution.

The extracts have been translated from: Aantekeningen over communistische economie” (‘Notes on communist economy’) by Piet de Bruin [Jan Appel], Part I/III, in: ‘Klassenstrijd’, 3rd Volume (1928), nr. 4 (April 1928, p. 114-119). (1)

Translation by the editor.