Origin and meaning of the ‘Fundamental Principles’
The work Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution (further: Fundamental Principles) of the Group of International Communists (GIC) is an important text of the communist Left on the economic problems of the transition period from capitalism to communism. The GIC describes the relevance of the Fundamental Principles as follows:
“As soon as the rule of the working class has become a fact in an industrialized country, the proletariat is confronted with the task of carrying through the transformation of economic life on new foundations, those of communal labor. The abolition of private property is easily pronounced, it will be the first measure of the political rule of the working class. But that is only a juridical act which aims at providing the legal foundation for the real economic proceeding. The real transformation and the actual revolutionary work then only begins.” (1)
The current meaning of this text is not limited to answering the questions that will arise immediately when the working class has taken political power. The Fundamental Principles are of further interest in the debate between the views of the Italian and the German-Dutch Left on the lessons of the workers’ revolutions of 1917-1923. This debate still encounters mutual ignorance of the views of one another. Because of the lack of complete translations of the 1935 final Dutch edition of the Fundamental Principles, and sometimes because of the presence of limited extracts, and a lack of knowledge of the preliminary studies to the Fundamental Principles (2) all kinds of misunderstandings have arisen that hinder the discussion until today.
The Fundamental Principles are an elaboration of the concept of a new society, which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels derived from the inner contradictions of capitalism and from the autonomous action of the working class in their time, especially in the bourgeois revolutions of 1848 and in the Commune of Paris of 1871. In the first edition of the Fundamental Principles (in German), the GIC reports that it was not until they had completed their studies that they became acquainted with Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program. As a result, the economic measures the GIC proposed had already been put forward by Marx. (3) Detesting any scholasticism, the GIC has critically analyzed the reformist views of a planned economy that were developed after Marx and Engels. The GIC shows in the first six chapters that the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union applied a state capitalist conception of the planned economy that they had adopted from reformism. In addition, in its final 1935 Dutch edition, the GIC criticizes the planned economy variant of libertarian communism, as this was to be applied by anarcho-syndicalism in 1936 in Spain. (4) But above all the GIC bases itself upon the revolutionary council movements in Russia and Germany from 1917 to 1923.
For a correct understanding of the Fundamental Principles it is necessary to understand the political framework in which the GIC proposes its economic measures. As is clear from the aforementioned quotation, the GIC presupposes a successful proletarian revolution in which the workers dominate an industrial area of reasonable size. In this revolution the working class, massively organized in councils, has smashed the bourgeois state and, from that moment on, exercises the dictatorship of the proletariat through the same councils over a society and an economy that still display almost all the characteristics of capitalism. To the degree that the resistance of the defeated capitalist class and other classes declines, and the proletarian revolution spreads throughout the world, this ‘workers’ state’ withers away. This is very briefly the political framework that the GIC is often wrongly thought to have neglected in favor of the ‘economic’ aspect. It should be noted that the conceptual contrast of ‘economics’ and ‘politics’ thus used, is a typically Leninist approach. The Fundamental Principles do not neglect the ‘political’ aspect, but the GIC takes a position different from Lenin, stressing that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the massive exercise of the power of the working class by the councils, and not a dictatorship of a party with the help of the state. The reader of the Fundamental Principles should not expect further analysis of the Russian revolution, because that was not the purpose of this text. The Fundamental Principles are concerned neither with the higher forms of communism, but focus on the time immediately following the revolution and on the economic measures that [have to] ensure that the workers continue to exercise power over society.
Within this political framework, the GIC focuses on the economic aspects of the transitional phase. The working class uses its power over the means of production to abolish wage labor in all its aspects. It does so as a revolutionary class, resolutely starting to end the division between brain work and manual labor, by revolutionizing all social relationships, as a mass organized in general enterprise assemblies and councils. This organization was meant by Marx when he wrote about the “association of free and equal producers’” With this association, the relations of production make an immediate leap from production for profit to production for the social needs. In the longer term, the working class will steer the economy from a scarcity economy toward abundance, allowing for the dissolution of other classes into the “association of free and equal producers” in which work will change into the development of each individual’s unique personality, and taking according to need will stretch across an ever larger part of the production.
The first step of this text by the German-Dutch communist Left was made by the experienced German revolutionary worker Jan Appel, member of the SPD, later chairman of the revolutionäre Obleute in Hamburg, co-founder of the Spartakusbund, member of the KPD(S), co-founder of the KAPD, in the Netherlands co-founder of the GIC in 1927 and after the Second World War member of Communistenbond ‘Spartacus’. (5) He came to his first ideas because of the economic chaos both in Germany immediately after the First World War, and in Russia after the October Revolution. As a delegate of the KAPD to the ECCI in 1920, and to the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921, he saw how the workers of the Prokhorof textile factory and the gigantic Putilov metal factory were powerless against the chaos that the Bolsheviks caused in the economy, and in particular how wage labor persisted. (6)
An interview with Paul Mattick shows that he and Jan Appel were in contact with each other in the wake of the revolutionary wave in the German Ruhr area. Jan Appel was arrested by the police for robbing a black trader. His comrades of the KAPD were worried he would be recognized as a revolutionary wanted by the police and condemned to a long prison sentence for the hijacking of a ship to Russia in 1920. Armed with pistols and hand-grenades, Appel’s comrades, including Paul Mattick, appeared in the courtroom to liberate him if necessary. It was not necessary; he was not recognized as a ‘hijacker’ and was initially sentenced to only a short term in prison. (7) There Appel could read Das Kapital and was able to collect and work out his ideas on the basis of Marx’s fragments about the transitional period. Later he was still recognized and he had to serve a severe prison sentence in Hamburg for ‘hijacking’. After a general amnesty he was released and emigrated to the Netherlands at the turn of the year 1925-1926 to work at the shipyard Conrad in Haarlem. Appel took his notes on what would become the Fundamental Principles with him to the Netherlands. In 1926 he presented his ideas for communist production and distribution in two meetings. The first one, in which Appel gave an introduction, took place during Pentecost and a second meeting was held two weeks later. The participants were some members and ex-members of the KAPN: Henk Canne Meijer, Piet Coerman (Bussum), ir. Jordens (KAPN section Zwolle) and Herman Gorter. The latter reacted extremely critically. Gorter appealed to Lenin’s The State and Revolution and said that production should be organized like the postal services and the railways. According to Appel, Gorter became so emotional that Appel asked other participants what was wrong with him. Gorter was already ill then. (8) On September 15, 1927 he died. The GIC was then formed with in particular Coerman, Canne Meijer, Appel and Herman de Beer. The GIC further developed the basic text by Jan Appel, with Canne Meijer taking care of its redaction.
This led to three preliminary studies, parts of which were included in the first printed edition of the text, published in 1930 by the Allgemeine Arbeiter Union in Berlin. These preliminary studies are extremely important because they show the political framework of the Fundamental Principles more clearly than the 1930 edition of the main text.
Jan Appel’s source text appeared in 1928 in three episodes in Klassenstrijd under the pseudonym Piet de Bruin as “Aantekeningen over communistische economie”. The text refers directly to the practical experience of the revolution in Russia:
“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.” (9)
Secondly, the GIC published a study on the problem of the relations between industry and the agricultural sector, and thus between workers and peasants, a major obstacle to the Russian Revolution. The GIC supplemented the Russian experience with the attitude of the peasants in the German revolution. From this study the GIC derives the following important political conclusion:
“The social revolution, which communism regards as a new law of movement for the distribution of products, has something to offer the peasants. In addition to the exemption of all leases, mortgages and corporate debts, the even distribution of the national product brings the direct equality of city and country, which in practice leads to favoring of the farmer. But the agrarian proletariat, this pariah of capitalist society, is making a mighty leap forward, so that it has every interest in bringing agriculture into communist production.” (10)
This approach to the peasants is completely different from the Bolsheviks’ inconsistent attitude: reassuring, shortly before October 1917, the distribution of land ownership over the peasants; compulsory supply of the cities after the revolution; concessions to private ownership of land during the NEP; finally forced collectivization under Stalin and, consequently, lasting problems with food supply. The political perspective mentioned above was derived from the GIC‘s investigation of recent developments in the agricultural sector. This topic followed an old discussion in Dutch Social Democracy before the First World War, (11) and Gorters well-known remark in his Open letter to comrade Lenin about the different importance of the peasants in the revolution in east and in west. This investigation gave the GIC the following insight:
“(…) that the current agriculture is characterized by specialization and thus has developed completely into ‘commodity production’. An increase in productivity has been achieved through modern technology, without companies concentrating in one hand. This develops in parallel with the development of agricultural cooperatives, which combine farms into communities of interest, but farmers often lose their ‘freedom’ (for example, in many cases, disposing of their product). It is typical, although very understandable, that the current labor movement does not want to see this capitalist development in agriculture. Understandable, because these growth lines do not fit into their state-communist theory. The farm is socialized, the farms are forged together and act collectively and yet they are absolutely not suitable for state administration. Of course, the so-called socialist working-class movement does not infer from this that its state-communist theory is wrong, but concludes that communism is impossible unless agriculture develops along the lines it ought according to scholastic Marxism.
(…) The position of the Group of International Communists in relation to the nature of the proletarian revolution originates in no small part from the development that the peasant enterprise has assumed in the highly developed capitalist countries. It is precisely the fact that agriculture has optimally become involved in social labor, that agriculture has been integrated in the process of the social division of labor, that it has advanced to industrial production and yet cannot not organically be integrated into ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’, that casts strong doubts on the coherence of the ‘communist’ theories. The whole of ‘nationalization’ or ‘socialization theories’ appear to be nothing else than a reformist distortion of the proletarian goals.” (12)
The third preliminary study by the GIC was only published in the Netherlands in 1932, as the pamphlet Marxisme en staatscommunisme; het afsterven van de staat. (13) Jan Appel had already published this text in German in 1927. In Marxisme en staatscommunisme, the GIC criticizes the identification of nationalization with socialization and of state capitalism with socialism, which Lenin had adopted from reformism in The State and revolution. In contrast to the strengthening of the state that ensued from it, and that contrasted with Lenin’s expectation of the withering away of the state, the GIC sticks to Marx’s view that the association of free and equal producers, that is the workers’ councils, takes over the means of production. For the GIC it is therefore only natural that the workers’ councils exercise their dictatorship over society economically as well, namely by controlling production and distribution as an association of free and equal producers. In this way it is possible that this dictatorship (‘proletarian state’) actually dies off in the further development of communism.
Fredo Corvo, May 2018.
Proofreading: Jacob Johanson, May 12, 2018.
Continue reading Part 2: Misunderstandings and anti-critique
Illustration 1: Front cover of the “Grundprinzipien”‘s first edition (A.A.U.D., Berlin, 1930)
Illustration 2: Front cover of the 2nd, revised and supplemented edition in Dutch language (G.I.C., January 1935)
1 GIC, Marxism and State Communism; The Withering Away of the State – Amsterdam: Groepen van Internationale Communisten, 1932. – 18 p. The quote is identical to the first paragraph of Max Hempel (pseudonym of Jan Appel), Marx-Engels und Lenin; Über die Rolle des Staates in der proletarischen Revolution, in Proletarier (Berlijn), no. 4-6, May 1927. Both texts largely correspond to the Fundamental Principles and can be regarded as a preliminary study.
2 For a complete overview of various publications with links to the full texts, see aaap.be. If you are looking for a short summary of the Fundamental Principles, you can choose from the following titles, arranged here from simply too complex: from Spartacus 1961 (Dutch original), from Mattick 1938 Part 1, Part 2 (English original), or by Mattick 1934 (English original).
3 See Fundamental Principles of Communist and Distribution, 1930, Ch. XIX.
4 GIC, Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, 1930, Ch. I to VI. GIC, The Basic Theoretical Foundations of the Work “Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution”, 1931. The 1935 edition is supplemented with answers to several critics. Unfortunately it has never been translated from Dutch into other languages.
6 Notes of a conversation of F.O. with Appel about 1977 (collection AAAP).
7 Plutte, Geoffroy (Hrsg.), Die Revolution war für mich ein großes Abenteuer. Paul Mattick in Gespräch mit Michael Buckmiller. Münster, 2013. S. 41/43. La révolution fut une belle aventure : Des rues de Berlin en révolte aux mouvements radicaux americains (1918-1934) / Paul Mattick; traduit de l’allemand par Laure Batier et Marc Geoffroy; préface de Gary Roth; notes de Charles Reeve. – Montreuil : L’Echappée, 2013.
8 On the basis of notes of a conversation by F.O. with Appel around 1977 (collection AAAP).
9 For the complete original text in Dutch see: Aantekeningen over communistische economie. The first part has been published in in AFRD Vol.1#04, August 22nd, 2017: “Extracts from: ‘Notes on communist economy’ by Piet de Bruin (Jan Appel), 1928 (Part 1 of 3)”.
10 GIC, Ontwikkelingslijnen in de landbouw (Ontwikkeling van het boerenbedrijf), 1930. See for a recent position: over het agrarische vraagstuk.
11 See: Eenige opmerkingen bij de voorstellen van de agrarische commissie / Ant[on]. Pannekoek [Met een antwoord van H. Gorter] in: De Nieuwe Tijd, 1904, p. 409-420.
13 GIC, Marxism and State Communism; The Withering Away of the State – Amsterdam: Groepen van Internationale Communisten, 1932. – 18 p.