Misunderstandings and anti-critique
In the foregoing, reference has been made to the misunderstandings that have arisen over time due to inadequate translations and summaries of the Fundamental Principles and unfamiliarity with the three preliminary studies. This section introduces the most important of these misunderstandings and corrects them with references to the 1935 version of the Fundamental Principles.
The first critique was that of Herman Gorter at the presentation of Jan Appel’s first draft. Unfortunately, this critique was only passed on by word of mouth. Gorter’s appeal of 1926 to Lenin’s The state and revolution for his view that production should be arranged as in the postal service and the railways was answered by Appel’s critique of Lenin in the original German version of 1927 of the GIC pamphlet Marxisme en staatscommunisme; het afsterven van de staat.(1)
Presupposed ideals of absolute equality
At first Anton Pannekoek was also skeptical and did not want to write a foreword to what he thought was a Utopian plan. After reading, that proved too easy; it was more a critique of the view that the organization of production had to come from the state. (2) In his book Workers’ Councils (1946) Pannekoek devoted ten pages to a summary of the Fundamental Principles. (3) In his standard work on the Dutch and German communist Left, Bourrinet suggests that Pannekoek in Workers’ Councils ‘implicitly’ criticizes the Fundamental Principles. Among many other misconceptions that only show that the author is not acquainted with the version of the Fundamental Principles revised in 1935, Bourrinet falsely presupposes that the GIC uses an absolute idea of ‘justice’ and ‘equal distribution’. (4)
In his introduction to the republication of the first German edition Paul Mattick was already critical in 1970 on the distribution based on hours worked, which the GIC proposed at the beginning of the transitional period. In addition this text contains all sorts of interesting points for discussion that go beyond the scope of this text. The “possible wrongs of a distribution bound to labor time” that Mattick showed, namely that in spite of formal equality there is no equality of work, nor of living conditions of the workers, were known to the GIC as well as to Marx, as was the essential solution, the evolution toward a higher stage of communism, where taking according to needs and giving according to capacities will prevail. Mattick simplifies the problem in his assumption that “in the advanced capitalist countries (…) the social forces of production are sufficiently developed to produce means of consumption in abundance” and “that under the conditions of a communist economy an abundance of means of consumption can be produced that renders a calculation of individual shares [in communal labor] superfluous.” (5) Firstly, we do not know what devastation as a result of the destruction of the environment, the imperialist wars, the economic crises and the civil war between capital and labor, will be inherited from capitalism by a victorious working class. Secondly, Mattick does not ask the question “who will work if consumption is free?” The transition from scarcity to abundance in the higher forms of communism is not just a question of the technical development of the productive forces. The revolution is also the “self-education” of the human productive forces, by which the proletariat can “succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” (6)
Within the group Daad & Gedachte, on the narrow basis of its own summary of the Fundamental Principles, discussions emerged in the late 1970s about the existing inequalities in pay when calculated on the basis of hours worked. In addition to interesting proposals to compensate for these inequalities, however, the group advanced ‘equality’ ideals that are missing in the GIC writings. (7)
At the beginning of the transitional period, when it is a society that still has characteristics of capitalism, the word “freedom” in the “association of free and equal producers” has a negative connotation, as opposed to oppression, and not yet that of the free development of individually unique properties. Likewise, the word ”equality” in the period immediately after the proletarian revolution reminds us that the formal equality of civil law in “equal producers” hides all kinds of real forms of inequality. Equality is dealt with in the Fundamental Principles, 1935, in Chapter IX under the heading “ ‘Rechtvaardige’ verdeling?”:
“In communist production we therefore demand that working time be the measure of consumption. Each worker determines by his work at the same time his share of the social stocks of consumer goods.
Or, as Marx says: ‘He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor costs. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.’ (See the end of Chapter III.).
This is misinterpreted as a ‘fair’ distribution of the national product. And that’s true in the sense that no one can eat with leisure, as the shareholders do when they only collect the dividend. But with that justice is exhausted. At first glance, it appears that all wage differentials are abolished, and that all functions in social life, both spiritual and manual labor, give equal rights to social stocks. On closer inspection, however, this law of equality works very unfairly.
Let us take two workers, both of whom give society the best of their powers. But one is unmarried, while the other has a family with five children. Another one is married, while husband and wife both work so that they have a ‘double’ income. (8)In other words, the same right to social resources becomes a great injustice in practical consumption.
The distribution of labor according to the working time standard can therefore never be deduced from justice. The standard of working time has the same shortcomings as any other standard. That means: A fair standard does not exist and can never exist. Whatever criterion one chooses, it will always be unfair. And that’s because using a scale means ignoring individual differences in needs. One person has few needs, the other many. One man can thus satisfy all his needs with his allocation on the supplies, while another lacks all kinds of things. They give society their whole being, and yet the first can satisfy his needs and the second one can not.
This is the imperfection inherent in every scale. In other words, the definition of a consumption measure is an expression of the unevenness of consumption.
The demand for equal rights to social stocks has nothing to do with justice. On the contrary, it is a political demand par excellence that we set as wage laborers. For us, the abolition of wage labor is the central point of the proletarian revolution. As long as work is not the norm for consumption, there is a ‘wage’, be it high or low. In any case, there is no direct connection between the wealth of the goods produced and this wage. Therefore, the management of production, the distribution of goods and thus also the added value produced, must go to ‘higher instances’. However, if working time is the criterion for individual consumption, it means that wage labor has been abolished, that there is no longer any surplus value produced, and therefore no ‘higher levels’ are needed to distribute ‘national income’.
The requirement of an equal right to social resources therefore does not depend on ‘justice’ or any kind of moral assessment. It is based on the conviction that only this way wage workers can keep control of the economy. From the ‘injustice’ of the equal right, communist society begins to develop.” (9)
Incomprehension of the political framework
From the point of view of the Italian left in exile, a more political critique has been made on the Fundamental Principles. However, Mitchell, in a very lengthy consideration in Bilan from 1936 to 1937, ignored the political premises found in both the preliminary studies and the 1935 edition of the Fundamental Principles. As a result, his conclusion is in part equivalent to stating the obvious:
“In the next revolution, the proletariat will win regardless of its cultural immaturity and its economic shortcomings, provided it does not rely on ‘the construction of socialism’ but on the development of the international civil war.” (10)
Hennaut had already written in 1936 a French summary of the Fundamental Principles for Bilan. With knowledge of the Dutch edition, Hennaut formulated in 1935 in Bilan much more cautiously and more precise what Bilan meant, namely the question of the proletarian state:
“(…) that a revolution, how ‘mature’ it may be, can never be a mechanical process. It is possible that this is not the view of our Dutch comrades, and that the gap to which we refer is due only to the necessity of abstraction, for the sake of clarity, to present economic development as completely separate from the political. However, it is important to provide more clarity in this regard. It is true that they explain somewhere that the state remains necessary for the proletariat after the seizure of power. It is a ‘state’ of a special character, which in reality is no longer a state, as Lenin, according to Marx, has shown. It concerns a state that can ‘only die off’, while Marxism has shown that the state is always the means to oppress one class against another. It is possible that, for the sake of clarity, the term ‘proletarian state’ should be replaced by a more correct one. But with this argument, one will understand our criticism. The presentation of the Dutch explains the necessity of a ‘proletarian state’ which can not escape its function as a tool to suppress the counter-revolution.” (11)
The Italian Left in Bilan and Internationalisme has brought forward interesting positions on the state in the transitional period. Unfortunately, the discussion between the positions of the Italian and the Dutch communist Left has been stuck for decades because of disregard of the political framework that the GIC has used. (12) Some of these persistent misunderstandings were spread by Gilles Dauvé.
After May 1968, the German-Dutch Left was rediscovered in France. This rediscovery took place in the shadow of petty bourgeois and artisan illusions about an economic “workers self-management” of isolated occupied factories – for example, the watch factory LIP – within capitalism. After some council-communist texts were newly translated or republished from previously obscure sources, Authier and Barrot (the latter being a pseudonym of Gilles Dauvé) published in 1976 a first historiography in French of La gauche Communiste en Allemagne 1918-1921. The authors took over Bordiga’s critique of a supposed obsession of the German communist Left with forms of organization (councils, party) at the expense of their content, the communist program. Bordiga pointed out that as long as the ruling Communist Party of Russia only adhered “programmatically” to the world revolution, Russia would be governed by a dictatorship of the proletariat. (13) Bordiga did not identify state capitalism with socialism, as Lenin did in The state and revolution before the October Revolution. Bordiga appealed to Lenin’s statements at the time of the fight against the Left Communists and later in the defense of the NEP. A Lenin who had become more critical after the October Revolution defended state capitalism as an economic advance towards socialism, but he did qualify it as capitalism. On these not insignificant intricacies in the defense of state capitalism by Lenin and Bordiga, it is important to emphasize that Bordiga accepted the Leninist substitution of mass activity and mass organization of the class by the minority organization of the party, whereas the Dutch and German Left shared the view of the workers’ councils as mass organs of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This view, however, is dismissed in Leninist style from the substitutionist point of view of Bordigism as the priority of the organizational form over the programmatic content, if not simply as “economism”. With a Bordigist appeal to the primacy of the program, Authier and Barrot have qualified the whole German-Dutch Left as “councilist”, (14) denying its ‘communist’ character.
The main crime the GIC has committed in the eyes of Authier and Barrot is its proposal to introduce the socially average working hour as a unit of calculation in an economy that still knows penury. By introducing a general unit of accounting the value relationship would be maintained. To prove that, they rely on Bordiga, who would have been sole to have repeated for long that communism exceeds every value. Calculations were only to be applied to physical quantities, “but not in order to quantify, to regulate an exchange that no longer exists.” (15) In this context Authier and Barrot refer to two fragments of his extensive work on The Economic and Social Structure of Modern Russia. (16) These fragments however say in the first place, that in socialism the accumulation of value is replaced by a production of use values (p. 191). Secondly, Bordiga points out that the Bolsheviks used money as a means of calculation in their planning, and he agrees with Bukharin where the latter expresses a preference for planning in kind or physical quantities (p. 205). The Bolsheviks applied this planning in kind during War Communism, a generally recognized total failure after which the NEP was introduced. Planning in physical quantities was analyzed by the GIC in Fundamental Principles. (17)
Authier and Barrot refer to Marx’s critique of Proudhon as a second argument against working time as a unit of calculation. In 2013, however, David Adam has shown that the GIC’s proposals are fully in line with Marx. In his political adventures (18) Barrot/Dauvé had developed into the main ideologue of the current of ‘communisation’. Confronted with Adam’s argument Dauvé turned away from Marx:
“In Marx’s Critique of Socialist Labor-Money Schemes & the Myth of Council Communism’s Proudhonism, libcom, 2013, David Adam rebuts my former critique of the councilist vision of communism on the ground that the GIC’s notion of value is the same as Marx’s. The discussion is becoming rather tricky, no fault of D. Adam or mine, it is just that the question is complicated. In the past, I wished to refute the GIC in the name of Marx’s analysis of value, with special reference to the Grundrisse. I now make the point that there is something highly debatable in Marx’s vision itself, both in Capital and the Grundrisse, and that the GIC did follow Marx’s footsteps and was wrong to do so: far from being a useful and fair instrument of measure, labor time is capitalist blood. This is more than a causative link: labor time is the substance of value. Marx was indeed a forerunner of the councilist project.” (19)
For the sake of completeness it has to be noted here that Bordiga’s work on The Economic and Social Structure of Today’s Russia contains a chapter in which he refers to the labor certificates (with the number of hours worked) that Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programproposed as a right to consumption in the first stage of socialist society. Bordiga says that in the Soviet Union he has encountered all kinds of purely capitalist categories, money, savings, bank accounts, interest, credit, but never these labor certificates. (20) That makes Dauvé’s appeal to Bordiga questionable at least.
Enough about persistent misunderstandings of the Fundamental Principlesby lack of knowledge of its text, especially in the French-speaking world. Let the GIC finally speak for itself.
The economic dictatorship of the proletariat
Under the title “The Economic Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, the GIC gave its political vision in its 1935 edition of the Fundamental Principles:
“Finally, we must devote a few words to the dictatorship of the proletariat. This dictatorship is a matter of course for us, and one need not necessarily talk about it, because the structure of communist economic life is no different from the dictatorship of the proletariat. The implementation of the communist economy means nothing other than the abolition of wage labor, which enforces the equal right for all producers on the social stocks. That is the abolition of all privileges of certain classes. The communist economy does not give anyone the right to enrich himself at the expense of the work of others. Who does not work, shall not eat. The implementation of these principles is by no means ‘democratic’. The working class is implementing them with the most violent, bloody fight. There can be no question of a ‘democracy’ in the sense of class cooperation, as we know it today in the parliamentary and trade union system.
But if we look at this dictatorship of the proletariat from the transformation of social relations, from the reciprocal relations of men, then this dictatorship is the true conquest of democracy. Communism does not mean anything else than that humanity enters a higher cultural stage, because all social functions come under the direct guidance and control of all workers and [they] thus take their fate into their own hands. That is, democracy has become the life principle of society. Thus, an essential democracy, rooted in the management of social life by the working masses, is exactly the same as the dictatorship of the proletariat.
It was again reserved for Russia to make this dictatorship a caricature by presenting the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party as the dictatorship of the proletarian class. Thus, it closed the door for genuine proletarian democracy, the administration and the direction of social life by the masses themselves. The dictatorship of a party is the form in which the dictatorship of the proletariat is actually prevented.
In addition to the social significance of the dictatorship, lets have a look at its economic content. In the economic sphere, the dictatorship operates in such a way that it brings the new social rules to which economic life is subject to general application. The workers themselves can add all social activities to the communist economy by accepting their principles by implementing production for the community under the responsibility of the community. All together, they implement communist production.
It is obvious that different parts of the agricultural sector will not immediately follow the rules of communist economic life, that is, they will not join the communist community. It is also probable that different workers will understand communism in such a way that they want to run the enterprises independently, but not under the control of society. Instead of the private capitalist of the past, the business organization acts as a ‘capitalist’.
In this respect, the economic dictatorship has the special function to organize the economic sector according to the general rules, the social accounting in the general accounting office fulfilling an important function. In the social accounts we find the registration of the flow of goods within the communist economic life. This means nothing else than that those who are not part of the system of social accounting can not receive any raw materials. Because in communism nothing is ‘bought’ or ‘sold’. Producers can only receive products and raw materials from the community for further distribution or further processing. However, those who do not want to include their work in the socially regulated work process exclude themselves from the communist community. Thus, this economic dictatorship leads to a self-organization of all producers, whether small or large, whether industrial or agricultural. In fact, this dictatorship immediately abolishes itself from the moment that producers bring their work into the social process and work according to the principles of social control and abolition of wage labor. This is then also a dictatorship that automatically ‘dies’ as soon as the entire social life is grounded on the new foundations of the abolition of wage labor. It is also a dictatorship that does not perform its power with the bayonet, but which is carried out with the economic laws of development of communism. It is not ‘the state’ that carries out this economic dictatorship, but something more powerful than the state: the economic laws of development.” (21)
The Fundamental Principles certainly do not provide the final word on the economic measures that the workers’ councils can take after their conquest of political power. But the GIC has so far provided the most comprehensive and profound analysis of the revolutionary experiments in the period 1917-1923. It is up to new generations of revolutionary workers to go further, standing on the shoulders of what has been accomplished 100 years ago.
Fredo Corvo, May 2018.
Proofreading: Jacob Johanson, May 12, 2018.
Back to Part 1: Origin and meaning of the ‘Fundamental Principles’