Communism is not a 'nice idea', Vol. 3 Part 10, Bilan, the Dutch left, and the transition to communism

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After a delay which has been much longer than we originally intended, we are resuming the third volume of the series on communism. Let’s recall briefly that the first volume, which has also appeared in English and French in book form, began by looking at the development of the concept of communism from pre-capitalist societies to the first utopian socialists, and then focused on the work of Marx and Engels and the efforts of their successors in the Second International to understand communism not as an abstract ideal but as a material necessity made possible by the evolution of capitalist society itself.[1] The second volume examined the period in which the marxist prediction of proletarian revolution, first formulated in the period of capitalism’s ascendancy, was concretised by the dawn of the “epoch of wars and revolutions” acknowledged by the Communist International in 1919.[2] The third volume has so far concentrated on the sustained attempt by the Italian communist left during the 1930s to draw the lessons from the defeat of the first international wave of revolutions, but above all of the Russian revolution, and the implications of these lessons for a future period of transition towards communism.[3]

As we have often stressed, the communist left was first and foremost the product of an international reaction against the degeneration of the Communist International and its parties. The left groups in Italy, Germany, Russia, Britain and elsewhere converged towards the same criticisms of the CI’s regression towards parliamentarism, trade unionism, and compromise with the parties of social democracy.  There were intense debates among the various left currents and some concrete attempts at coordination and regroupment, such as the formation of the Communist Workers’ International in 1922, essentially by groups aligned with the German communist left. But at the same time the rapid failure of this new formation provided evidence that the tide of revolution was in reflux and that the time was not right for the founding of a new world party. Furthermore, this hasty initiative led by elements within the German movement highlighted what was perhaps the most serious division in the ranks of the communist left – the separation between its two most important expressions, those in Germany and Italy. This division was never absolute: in the early days of the Communist Party of Italy, there were attempts to understand and debate with other left currents; and elsewhere we have pointed to the debate between Bordiga and Korsch later on in the 1920s.[4] However, these contacts diminished as the revolution retreated and as the two currents reacted in different ways to the new challenges they faced. The Italian left was, quite correctly, convinced of the necessity to stay in the CI as long as it had a proletarian life and to avoid premature splits or the proclamation of new and artificial parties – precisely the course followed by the majority of the German left. Moreover, the emergence of openly anti-party tendencies in the German left, notably the group around Rühle, could only fuel the conviction of Bordiga and others that this current was dominated by anarchist ideology and practices. Meanwhile the German left groups, tending towards defining the whole experience of Bolshevism and October 1917 as expressions of a belated bourgeois revolution, were less and less able to distinguish the Italian left from the mainstream of the Communist International, not least because it continued to argue that the place of communists was inside the International fighting against its opportunist course. 

Today’s “Bordigist” groups have theorised this tragic and costly parting of the ways with their insistence that they alone constitute the historic communist left and that the German KAPD and its offshoots really were nothing but a petty bourgeois anarchist deviation. Groups like the International Communist Party (Il Partito) take this as far as publishing a defence of Lenin’s Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, praising it as a warning to “future renegades”.[5] This attitude reveals a rather tragic failure to recognise that the left communists should have been fighting together as comrades against the increasingly renegade leadership of the CI.

However, this was far from being the attitude of the Italian left during its most theoretically fruitful period: the one which followed the formation, in exile from fascist Italy, of the Left Fraction at the end of the 20s and the publication of the review Bilan between 1933 and 1938.  In a “Draft resolution on international links” in Bilan n° 22, they wrote that the “internationalist communists of Holland (the Gorter tendency) and elements of the KAPD represent the first reaction to the difficulties of the Russian state, the first experience of proletarian management, in linking up with the world proletariat through a system of principles elaborated by the International”. They concluded that the exclusion of these comrades from the International “did not bring any solution to these problems”. 

This approach laid down the basic foundations of proletarian solidarity upon which debate could take place, despite the very considerable divergences between the two currents; divergences that had widened considerably by the mid-30s, as the Dutch-German left evolved towards the positions of council communism, defining not only Bolshevism but the party form itself as bourgeois in nature. There were further difficulties posed by language and a lack of knowledge about each others’ respective positions, with the result being, as we note in our book The Italian Communist Left, that relations between the two currents were largely indirect.

The main point of connection between the two currents was the Ligue des Communistes Internationalistes in Belgium, which was in touch with the Groep van Internationale Communisten and other groups in Holland. It is perhaps significant that the main fruit of these contacts to appear in the pages of Bilan was the summary, written by Hennaut of the LCI, of the GIC’s book Grundprinzipien Kommunistischer Produktion und Verteilung – Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution[6]), and the fraternal but critical remarks about the book contained within Mitchell’s series “Problems of the Period of Transition”. To the best of our knowledge, the GIC did not respond to any of these articles, but it is still important to remind ourselves that the premises for a debate were laid down at the time the Grundprinzipien was published, not least because there have been very few subsequent attempts to take the discussion forward.[7] We should make it clear that the present article will not attempt to carry out an in-depth or detailed analysis of the Grundprinzipien. It has the more modest aim of studying the criticisms of the book published in Bilan and thus indicating some possible areas for future discussion.

The GIC examines the lessons of defeat

At the 1974 Paris conference of recently formed left communist groups, Jan Appel, the KAPD and GIC veteran who was one of the principal authors of the Grundprinzipien, explained that the text had been written as a part of the effort to understand what had gone wrong with the experience of state capitalism or “state communism as we sometimes used to call it” in the Russian revolution, and to lay down some guidelines that would make it possible to avoid similar errors in the future. Despite their differences about the nature of the Russian revolution, this was precisely what motivated the comrades of the Italian left to undertake a study of the problems of the period of transition, in spite of the fact that they understood only too well that they were passing through the depths of the counter-revolution. 

For Mitchell, as for the rest of the Italian left, the GIC were the “Dutch internationalists”, comrades who were animated by a profound commitment to overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a communist society. Both currents understood that a serious study of the problems of the transition period was far more than an intellectual exercise for its own sake. They were militants for whom the proletarian revolution was a reality which they had seen before their eyes; despite its terrible defeat they retained every confidence that it would rise again, and were convinced that it had to be armed with a clear communist programme if it was to be triumphant the next time around.

At the beginning of his summary of the Grundprinzipien, Hennaut poses precisely this question: “doesn’t it seem a waste of time to torture ourselves about the social rules the workers will have to establish once the revolution has been accomplished, at a time when the workers are in no way marching towards the final battle, but are in fact ceding the ground they have won to the triumphant reaction? What’s more, hasn’t everything on this matter already been said by the congresses of the CI? ... Certainly for those for whom the whole science of the revolution boils down to uncovering the gamut of manoeuvres that the masses have to follow, the enterprise must appear particularly pointless. But for those who consider that making precise the goals of the struggle is one of the functions of any movement of emancipation, and that the forms of this struggle, its mechanisms and the laws which regulate it can only be completely brought to light to the extent that the final goals to be attained have been made clear, in other words that the laws of the revolution come out more and more clearly as the consciousness of the working class grows – for them the theoretical effort to define exactly what the dictatorship of the proletariat will be is a task of primordial necessity[8]

As we have mentioned, Hennaut was not a member of the GIC but of the Belgian LCI. In a sense he was well placed to act as an “intermediary” between the Dutch-German and Italian left as he had agreements and differences with both. In a previous contribution to Bilan,[9] he criticised the Italian comrades’ notion of the “dictatorship of the party” and put the emphasis on the working class exercising control over the political and economic spheres through its own general organs such as the councils. At the same time he rejected Bilan’s view of the USSR as a degenerated proletarian state and defined both the political regime and the economy in Russia as capitalist. But it should be added that he had also embarked on a process of rejecting the proletarian character of the revolution in Russia, emphasising the lack of maturity of the objective conditions, so that “the revolution was made by the proletariat, but it was not a proletarian revolution.”[10] This analysis was quite close to that of the council communists, but Hennaut also demarcated himself from the latter on a number of key points: at the very beginning of his summary, he makes it clear that he does not agree with their rejection of the party. For Hennaut, the party would be all the more necessary after the revolution in order to fight against the ideological vestiges of the old world, although he did not feel that the GIC’s weakness on this point was the main issue with the Grundprinzipien; and at the end of his summary, in Bilan n° 22, he points to the weakness of the GIC’s conception of the state and their somewhat rose-tinted view of the conditions in which a revolution takes place. However he is convinced of the importance of the GIC’s contribution and makes a very serious effort to summarise them accurately over four articles. Evidently, it was not possible within the scope of such a summary to convey all the richness – and some of the apparent contradictions – in the Grundprinzipien, but he does make a good job of outlining the book’s essential points.

Hennaut’s summary brings out the significant fact that the Grundprinzipien does not at all locate itself outside the previous traditions and experiences of the working class, but bases itself on a historical critique of erroneous conceptions that had arisen within the workers’ movement, and on practical revolutionary experiences – notably the Russian and Hungarian revolutions – which had left mainly negative lessons. The Grundprinzipien thus contains criticisms of the views of Kautsky, Varga, the anarcho-syndicalist Leichter and others, while seeking to reconnect with the work of Marx and Engels, in particular The Critique of the Gotha Programme and Anti-Dühring.  It begins from the simple insistence that the exploitation of the workers in capitalist society is completely bound up with their separation from the means of production via the capitalist social relation of wage labour. Since the period of the Second International, the workers’ movement had deviated towards the idea that the simple abolition of private property signifies the end of exploitation, and the Bolsheviks had to a large extent applied this (mis)understanding after the October revolution.

For the Grundprinzipien the nationalisation or collectivisation of the means of production can perfectly well co-exist with wage labour and the alienation of the workers from their own product. What is key, therefore, is that the workers themselves, through their own organisations rooted in the workplace, dispose not only of the physical means of production but of the entire social product. But in order to ensure that the social product remained in the hands of the producers from the beginning to the end of the labour process (decisions on what to produce and in what quantities, distribution of the product including the remuneration of the individual producer) a general economic law was needed which could be subject to rigorous accounting: the calculation of the social product on the basis of the average socially necessary labour time. Although it is precisely the socially necessary labour time which is at the basis of the “value” of products in capitalist society, this would no longer be value production, because although the individual enterprises would play a considerable role in determining their own contribution to the labour time contained in their products, the enterprises would not be then selling their products on the market (and the Grundprinzipien criticises the anarcho-syndicalists precisely for envisaging the future economy as a network of independent enterprises linked by exchange relations). In the GIC’s vision, products would be simply distributed in accord with the overall needs of society, which would be determined by a congress of councils together with a central office of statistics and a network of consumer cooperatives. The Grundprinzipien is at pains to insist that neither the congress of councils nor the office of statistics are “centralised” or “state” organs. Their task is not to command labour but to use the criterion of socially necessary labour time, largely calculated at base level, to oversee the planning and distribution of the social product on a global scale. A consistent application of these principles would ensure that in the next revolution there would be no repetition of a situation where “the machine is escaping our hands” (Lenin’s famous words on the trajectory of the Soviet state, quoted by the Grundprinzipien). In sum, the key to the victory of the revolution lies in the capacity of the workers to maintain direct control of the economy, and the most reliable tool for achieving this is the regulation of production and distribution through the accounting of labour time.

Criticisms by the Italian left

The Italian left,[11] as we have said, welcomed the contribution of the GIC but did not spare their criticisms of the text. Broadly speaking these criticisms can be placed under four headings, although they all lead onto other issues and are all tightly interdependent.

  1. A national vision of the revolution.
  2. An idealist view of the real conditions of the proletarian revolution.
  3. Failure to understand the problem of the state and centralism, and a focus on the economy at the expense of political issues.
  4. More theoretical differences regarding the economics of the transition period: the overcoming of the law of value and the content of communism; egalitarianism and the remuneration of labour.

1. A national vision of the revolution

In his series “Parti-État-Internationale”[12] Vercesi had already criticised Hennaut and the Dutch comrades for approaching the problem of the revolution in Russia from a narrowly national standpoint. He insisted that no real progress could be made towards a communist society as long as the bourgeoisie held power on a world scale – whatever advances were made in one area under proletarian “management”, they could not be definitive:

The error which in our opinion the Dutch left communists and with them comrade Hennaut make is that they have taken a basically sterile direction, because it is basic to marxism that the foundations of a communist economy only present themselves on the world terrain and can never be realised inside the frontiers of a proletarian state. The latter can intervene in the economic domain to change the process of production, but in no way can it place this process definitively on communist foundations, because the conditions for realising such an economy only exist on the world scale… We will not move towards the realisation of the supreme goal by making the workers believe that after their victory over the bourgeoisie they could directly manage the economy in a single country. Until the victory of the world revolution the conditions for this don’t exist, and to take things in the direction which will allow the maturation of these conditions, you have to begin by recognising that it is impossible to obtain definitive results in a single country.”[13]

In his series Mitchell further elaborated this theme:

While it is undeniable that a national proletariat can only undertake certain economic tasks after installing its own rule, the construction of socialism can only get going after the destruction of the most powerful capitalist states, even though the victory of a ‘poor’ proletariat can take on a huge significance if it is integrated into the process of development of the world revolution. In other words, the tasks of a victorious proletariat with regard to its own economy are subordinated to the necessities of the international class struggle.

It is noteworthy that while all genuine marxists have rejected the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, most of the criticisms of the Russian revolution have focused essentially on the modalities of the construction of socialism, looking at economic and cultural criteria rather than political ones, and forgetting to go to the logical conclusions imposed by the impossibility of any kind of national socialism.[14]

Mitchell also devoted a large part of the series to arguing against the Menshevik idea, to a large extent taken up by the council communists, that the Russian revolution could not have been truly proletarian because Russia was not ripe for socialism. Against this approach, Mitchell affirms that the conditions for the communist revolution could only be posed on a world scale and that the revolution in Russia had simply been the first step in a world wide revolution, made necessary by the fact that capitalism as a world system had entered its period of decline. Thus any understanding of what had gone wrong in Russia had to be situated in the context of the world revolution: the degeneration of the Soviet state was first and foremost not a result of the economic measures taken by the Bolsheviks but of the isolation of the revolution.  In his view, the Dutch comrades had adopted “a false judgment of the Russian revolution, and above all to severely curtail the scope of their research into the underlying causes of the reactionary evolution of the USSR. They don’t seek the explanation for the latter in the subsoil of the national and international class struggle (one of the negative characteristics of their study is that they more or less remove any consideration of political problems), but in the economic mechanism.”[15]

In short: there are limits to what inferences we can draw from the economic measures taken during the Russian revolution. Even the most perfect measures, in the absence of the extension of the world revolution, would not have preserved the proletarian character of the regime in the USSR, and the same would apply to any country, “advanced” or “backward”, which found itself isolated in a world dominated by capital. 

2. The real conditions after the proletarian revolution

We have noted that Hennaut himself pointed to the Dutch comrades’ tendency to simplify conditions in the wake of a proletarian revolution: “it might appear to many readers that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The revolution is marching ahead, it cannot fail to come and it’s enough to leave things to themselves for socialism to become a reality.”[16] Vercesi had also argued that they tended to vastly underestimate the heterogeneity in class consciousness even after the revolution – an error directly linked to the council communists’ failure to understand the need for a political organisation of the more advanced elements of the working class. Furthermore, this was also connected to the Dutch comrades’ underestimation of the difficulties posed to the workers in taking direct charge of the management of production. For his part Mitchell argues that the Dutch comrades begin from an ideal, abstract schema which already excludes the stigmata of the capitalist past as the basis for advancing towards communism.

We have already made it clear that the Dutch internationalists, in their attempt to analyse the problems of the period of transition, are inspired much more by their desires than by historical reality. Their abstract schema, in which as people who are perfectly consistent with their principles, they exclude the law of value, the market and money, must logically entail an ‘ideal’ distribution of products as well. This is because for them ‘The proletarian revolution collectivises the means of production and thus opens the way to communist life; the dynamic laws of individual consumption must absolutely and necessarily be linked together because they are indissolubly linked to the laws of production. This link is made ‘by itself' though the passage to communist production’ (p.72 of their work).”[17]

Later on, Mitchell focuses on the obstacles facing the institution of equal remuneration of labour during the transition period (we will come back to this in a second article). In sum, for the Dutch comrades the lower stage and the higher stage of communism are completely mixed up:

At the same time, by repudiating the dialectical analysis and leaping over the problem of centralism, they have ended up changing the meaning of words, since what they are looking at is not the transitional period, which is the only one of interest to marxists from the point of view of solving practical problems, but the higher stage of communism. It is then easy to talk about ‘a general social accounting based on an economic centre to which all the currents of economic life flow, but which has no right of directing production or deciding on the distribution of the social product’. And they add that ‘in the association of free and equal producers, the control of economic life does not emanate from personalities or offices but results from the public registration of the real course of economic life. This means that production is controlled by reproduction’. In other words, ‘economic life is controlled by itself through average social labour time’ With such formulations, the solutions to the problems of proletarian management cannot advance at all, since the burning question posed to the proletariat is not to work out the mechanisms that regulate communist society, but to find the way that leads towards it.[18]

It’s true that there are a number of passages in the Grundprinzipien where the Dutch comrades cite Marx’s distinction between the lower and higher stages of the transition period; and they do recognise that there is a process, a movement towards integral communism in which the necessity for labour time accounting, for example, will gradually diminish in importance with regard to individual consumption:

We have seen that one of the most characteristic features of the GSU establishments (Note: public services such as healthcare and education) lay in the fact that in their case the principle ‘to each according to his needs’ is realised. Here the measure of labour-time plays no role in distribution. With the further growth of communism towards its higher stage, the incidence of this type of economic establishment becomes more and more widespread, so that it comes to include such sectors as food supply, passenger transport, housing, etc., in short: the satisfaction of consumption in general comes to stand on this economic foundation. This development is a process - a process which, at least as far as the technical side of the task is concerned, can be completed relatively rapidly. The more society develops in this direction and the greater the extent to which products are distributed according to this principle, the less does individual labour-time continue to act as the measure determining individual consumption.”[19]

And yet at the same time, as Mitchell notes above, they talk about the “free and equal producers” deciding on this or that precisely in the lower stage, a time when true freedom and equality are being fought for by the organised proletariat, but have not yet been definitively conquered. The term “free and equal producers” can only really be applied to a society where there is no longer a working class.

An example of this tendency to simplify is their treatment of the agrarian question. According to this section of the Grundprinzipien, the “peasant question”, which was such a major burden for the Russian revolution, would pose no great problems for the revolution of the future because the development of capitalist industry has already integrated the majority of the peasantry into the proletariat. This is an example of a certain Eurocentric vision (and even in Europe this was far from being the case in the 1930s) which does not take into account the vast numbers of non-exploiting, but also non-proletarian masses existing on a world scale and which the proletarian revolution will have to integrate into truly socialised production.

3. The state, centralism, and economism

To talk about the existence of classes other than the proletariat in the transition period immediately poses the question of a semi-state organisation which would, among other things, have the task of politically representing these masses. Thus a further consequence of the Dutch comrades’ abstract schema is their avoidance of the problem of the state. Again, as we have noted, Hennaut sees that “the state occupies, in the Dutch comrades’ system, a place that is to say the least equivocal.[20] Mitchell notes that as long as classes exist, the working class will have to put up with the scourge of a state, and that this is bound up with the problem of centralism:

The analysis of the Dutch internationalists undoubtedly moves away from marxism because it never puts forward the fundamental reality that the proletariat is forced to put up with the ‘scourge’ of the state until classes have disappeared, that is, until the disappearance of world capitalism. But to underline such a historic necessity is to admit that state functions are still temporarily mixed up with centralisation, even though this takes place after the destruction of the capitalist apparatus of oppression and is not necessarily opposed to the development of the cultural level of the working masses and their capacity to take charge. Instead of looking for the solution to this development in the real context of historical and political conditions, the Dutch internationalists have tried to find it in a formula for appropriation which is both utopian and retrograde and which is not as clearly distinct from ‘bourgeois right’ as they imagine”.[21]

In the light of the Russian experience, the Dutch comrades were certainly justified in being wary that any central organising body could assume dictatorial powers over the workers. At the same time, the Grundprinzipien do not reject the need for some form of central coordination. They talk about a central office of statistics and an “economic congress of workers’ councils”, but these are presented as economic bodies charged with simple tasks of coordination: they appear to have no political or state functions. But by simply decreeing in advance that such central or coordinating bodies will not take on or be connected to any state functions, they actually weaken the workers’ capacity to defend themselves from a real danger that will exist throughout the transition period: the danger of the state, even a “semi-state” rigidly directed by the workers’ unitary organs, increasingly forming itself into a power autonomous from society and re-imposing direct forms of economic exploitation.

The notion of the post-revolutionary state does appear briefly in the book (in fact, in the very last chapter). But in the words of the GIC it “exists simply as the apparatus of power pure and simple of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Its task is to break the resistance of the bourgeoisie... but as far as the administration of the economy is concerned, it has no role whatever to fulfil.[22]

Mitchell does not refer to this passage but it would not contradict his misgivings about the GIC’s tendency to see the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat as the same thing, an identification which in his view disarms the workers in favour of the state: “The active presence of proletarian organisms is the condition for keeping the proletarian state in the service of the workers and for preventing it from turning against them. To deny the contradictory dualism of the proletarian state is to falsify the historic significance of the period of transition.

Certain comrades consider, by contrast, that during this period there has to be an identification between the workers' organisations and the state. (cf. comrade Hennault's ‘Nature and Evolution of the Russian State’, Bilan p.1121). The Dutch internationalists go even further when they say that since ‘labour time is the measure of the distribution of the social product and the whole of distribution remains outside any ‘politics', the trade unions have no function in communism and the struggle for the amelioration of living conditions will have come to an end’ (p.115 of their work).

Centrism also starts off from the conception that since the soviet state is a workers’ state, any demands raised by the workers become an act of hostility towards ‘their’ state, therefore justifying the total subordination of the trade unions and the factory committees to the state mechanism”.[23]

The Dutch-German left was, of course, much quicker to recognise that the trade unions had already ceased to be proletarian organs under capitalism, let alone in the period of transition to communism where the working class would have created its own unitary organs (factory committees, workers’ councils etc). But Mitchell’s basic point remains perfectly valid. By confusing the journey with the destination, by eliminating from the equation other non-proletarian classes and the whole complex social heterogeneity of the post insurrectional situation, and above all by envisaging an almost immediate abolition of the condition of the proletariat as an exploited class, the Dutch comrades, for all their antipathy to the state, leave the door open to the idea that during the transitional period the need for the working class to defend its immediate interests will have become superfluous. For the Italian left, the need to preserve the independence of trade unions and/or factory committees from the general organisation of society – in short, from the transitional state – was a fundamental lesson of the Russian revolution where the “workers’ state” ended up repressing the workers.

This evasion or simplification of the issue of the state, like the GIC’s failure to grasp the necessity for the international extension of the revolution, is part of a wider underestimation of the political dimension of the revolution. The GIC’s obsession is the search for a method of calculating, distributing and remunerating social labour so that central control can be kept to a minimum and the transitional economy can advance in a semi-automatic way towards integral communism. But for Mitchell, the existence of such laws is no substitute for the growing political maturity of the working masses, of their actual capacity to impose their own direction over social life.

The Dutch comrades have, it’s true, proposed an immediate solution: no economic or political centralism, which can only take on an oppressive form, but the transfer of management to enterprise organisms which would coordinate production through a ‘general economic law’ (?). For them, the abolition of exploitation (and thus of classes) does not take place through a long historic process involving the ceaseless growth of participation by the masses in social administration, but in the collectivisation of the means of production, provided that this involves the right of the enterprise councils to dispose of the means of production and the social product. But apart from the fact this is a formulation which contains its own contradiction - since it boils down to opposing integral collectivisation (property of all, and of no one in particular) with a kind of restricted, dispersed collectivisation between social groups (the shareholders’ society is also a partial form of collectivisation) - it simply tends to substitute a juridical solution (the right to dispose of the enterprises) for another juridical solution, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. But as we have already seen, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie is simply the initial condition for the social transformation (even though full collectivisation is not immediately realisable), and the class struggle will continue as before the revolution, but on political bases which will allow the proletariat to impose the decisive direction.”[24]

Behind this rejection of the political dimension of the class struggle we can see a fundamental difference between the two branches of the communist left in their understanding of the transition towards communism. The Dutch comrades do recognise the need for vigilance faced with the remainder of “powerful tendencies inherited from the capitalist mode of production making for the concentration of powers of control in a central authority.[25] But this illuminating paragraph appears in the middle of an inquiry into accounting methods in the transition period, and within the book as a whole there is little sense of the immense struggle that will be needed to overcome the habits of the past as well as their material and social personification in classes, strata and individuals more or less hostile to communism. In the GIC’s outlook there seems to be little need for a political battle, a confrontation between conflicting class viewpoints, inside the organs of the working class, whether in the workplace or at a wider social level. This is also consistent with their repudiation of the need for communist political organisations, for the class party. 

We will look at some of the more theoretical problems of the economic dimension of the communist transformation in the second part of this article

CD Ward


Extract from The Dutch and German Communist Left

From chapter 7, part 4: An “economist” vision of the revolution: the Grundprinzipien


b) The period of transition from capitalism to communism

The question of the period of transition towards communism after the seizure of power by the workers’ councils was always approached by the German, then the Dutch council communists, from a strictly economic angle. According to the GIC, the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the evolution of Soviet Russia towards state capitalism proved the failure of “politics”, in which the dictatorship of the proletariat was seen first and foremost as a political dictatorship over the whole of society and which pushed the proletariat’s economic tasks into the background. This idea was expressed with particular emphasis by Pannekoek: “The traditional view is the domination of politics over the economy... what the workers have to aim for is the domination over politics by the economy[26]

This view was exactly the reverse of the one held by other revolutionary groups in the 30s, such as the Italian communist left, which had opened a whole theoretical discussion about the period of transition.[27]

Unlike the German and Italian communist lefts,[28] the GIC did not show much interest in the political questions of the proletarian revolution, in theoretical reflections about the state in the period of transition. The relationship between the new state of the period of transition, the revolutionary parties, and the workers’ councils was never dealt with, despite the Russian experience. Neither is there anything on the relationship between the revolutionary International and the state, or states, in countries where the proletariat has taken political power. Likewise, the complex questions of proletarian violence[29] and the civil war in a revolutionary period were never posed. For the GIC it seems that there was no problem of the existence of a state - or a semi-state - in the period of transition towards communism. The question of whether it would exist, and of what would be its nature (“proletarian” state or a “scourge” inherited by the proletariat) was never posed. These problems were more or less evaded.

The GIC’s main text[30] on the period of transition, The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution (Grundprinzipien Kommunischer Produktion und Verteilung) only dealt with the economic problems of this period.

The GIC’s starting point was that the failure of the Russian revolution and the evolution towards state capitalism could only be explained through its ignorance of, or even its denial of the necessity for, an economic transformation of society - this problem being common to the whole workers’ movement. But paradoxically, the GIC recognised the fundamental role of the Russian experience, the only one that made it possible to take marxist theory forward:

“… at least as far as industrial production was concerned… Russia has attempted to order economic life according to the principles of communism… and in this has failed completely! [...] Above all else, it has been the school of practice embodied in the Russian Revolution which we must thank for this knowledge, because it is this which has shown us in unmistakable terms exactly what the consequences are of permitting a central authority to establish itself as a social power which then proceeds to concentrate in its exclusive hands all power over the productive apparatus.[31]

For the Dutch council communists, the dictatorship of the proletariat immediately meant “the association of free and equal producers”. The workers, organised in councils in the factories, had to take hold of the whole productive apparatus and make it work for their own needs as consumers, without resort to any central state-type body, since that could only mean perpetuating a society of inequality and exploitation. In this way it would be possible to avoid a situation where the kind of “state communism” set up during the phase of war communism in 1918-20 inevitably transforms itself into a form of state capitalism whose production needs dominate those of the workers as producers and consumers. In the new society, dominated by the councils and not by a state led by a centralised party, wage labour – the source of all inequality and all exploitation of labour power – would be abolished.

In the final analysis, for the GIC, the problems of the period of transition were very simple: the main thing was that the producers should control and distribute the social product in an egalitarian manner and by exercising authority “from the bottom upwards”. The essential problem of the period of transition as revealed by 1917 was not political – the question of the world-wide extension of the proletarian revolution – but economic. What counted was the immediate, egalitarian increase in workers’ consumption, organised by the factory councils. The only real problem of the period of transition for the GIC was the relationship between the producers and their products: “It is the proletariat itself which lays in place the foundation-stone cementing the basic relationship between producers and the product of their labour. This and this alone is the key question of the proletarian revolution.[32]

But how was the “egalitarian” distribution of the social product to be achieved? Obviously not through simple juridical measures: nationalisation, “socialisation”, the various forms of the takeover of private property by the state. According to the GIC the solution lay in calculating the cost of production in terms of the labour time in the enterprises, in relation to the quantity of social goods created. Of course depending on the respective productivity of the different enterprises, for the same product the quantity of labour required would be unequal. To resolve this problem, it would suffice to calculate the average social labour time for each product. The quantity of labour carried out in the most productive enterprises, those who were above the social average, would be put toward a common fund. This would bring the less productive enterprises up to the general level. At the same time it would serve to introduce the technological progress necessary for the development of productivity in the enterprises of a given sector, so as to reduce average production time.

The organisation of consumption was to be based on the same principles. A general system of social accounting, based on statistical documentation and established by the producer-consumers organised in councils and co-operatives, would be used to calculate the factors of consumption. After various deductions – replacing outworn machinery, technical improvements, a social security fund for those unable to work, for natural disasters etc– there would be equal distribution of the social reserve for each consumer. Egalitarian conditions of production, assured by the calculation of average social labour time, would be matched by generally equal conditions for all individual consumers. Thanks to this system of social accounting, the law of value would be done away with: products would no longer circulate on the basis of their exchange value with money as the universal measure. Furthermore, with the edification of a “neutral” accounting and statistical centre, not detached from the councils, independent of any group of persons or of any central body, the new society would escape the danger of the formation of a parasitic bureaucracy that appropriated part of the social product.

The Fundamental Principles have the merit of underlining the importance of economic problems in the period of transition between capitalism and communism, all the more so because this had been approached very rarely in the revolutionary movement. Without a real and continuous increase in workers’ consumption, the dictatorship of the proletariat has no meaning, and the realisation of communism would be a pious wish.

But the GIC’s text suffered from a certain number of weaknesses, which did not go unnoticed by other revolutionary groups.[33]

The Fundamental Principles actually only deals with the evolved phase of communism, where the government of men had been replaced the “administration of things”, according to the principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” enunciated by Marx. The GIC believed that it would be immediately possible, as soon as the workers’ councils had taken power in a given country, to proceed to an evolved form of communism. It started off from an ideal situation, in which the victorious proletariat has taken over the productive apparatus of the highly developed countries and has been spared all the costs of the civil war (destruction, a large part of production going towards military needs); moreover, it assumes that there will be no peasant problem standing in the way of the socialisation of production since, according to the GIC, agricultural production was already completely industrial and socialised.[34] Finally, neither the isolation of one or several proletarian revolutions, nor the archaisms of small-scale agricultural production, constituted a major obstacle to the establishment of communism: “Neither the absence of the world revolution, nor the unsuitability of the individual agricultural enterprises in the countryside to state management can be held responsible for the failure of the Russian revolution ... at the economic level.[35]

Thus, the GIC distanced itself from the marxist vision of the period of transition, which distinguished two phases: a lower stage, sometimes described as socialism, in which the “government of men” determined a proletarian economic policy in a society still dominated by scarcity; and a higher phase, that of communism proper, a society without classes, without the law of value, where the productive forces develop freely, on a world scale, unencumbered by national boundaries. But even for the lower stage of the period of transition, still dominated by the law of value and the existence of backward-pulling classes, marxism emphasised that the condition for any economic transformation in a socialist direction is the triumph of the world revolution. The beginning of any real economic transformation of the new society, still divided into classes, depends in the first place on the proletariat affirming itself politically in the face of other classes.

The GIC’s “economist” vision is connected to its inability to grasp the problem of the existence of a state – a “semi-state” – in the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, at the beginning of the transitional stage. This semi-state constitutes a danger for the proletarian power, since it is a force for social conservation, “a force emerging from society, but rising above it and becoming more and more autonomous from it.[36]

The GIC’s theory of the period of transition seems close to the anarchist theory, denying the existence of a state and thus of a political struggle for the domination of the new society. The basically “technical” role that the GIC gives the workers, who are charged with keeping account of the average social labour time in production, was an implicit negation of their political role.

As with the anarchists, the GIC saw the building of a communist society as a more or less natural and automatic process. Not the culmination of a long, contradictory process of class struggle for the domination of the semi-state, against all the conservative forces, but the fruit of a linear, harmonious, almost mathematical development. This view has a certain resemblance to the ideas of the 19th century utopian socialists, particularly Fourier’s Universal Harmony .[37]

The final weakness of the Grundprinzipien lies in the very question of the accounting of labour time, even in an advanced communist society which has gone beyond scarcity. Economically, this system could reintroduce the law of value, by giving the labour time needed for production an accounted value rather than a social one. Here the GIC goes against Marx, for whom the standard measure in communist society is no longer labour time but free time, leisure time.[38]

In the second place, the existence of a “neutral”, supposedly technical accounting centre does not offer a sufficient guarantee for the construction of communism. This “centre” could end up becoming an end in itself, accumulating hours of social labour to the detriment of the consumption needs and free time of the producer-consumers, and becoming increasingly autonomous from society. If the producers “at the base” became less and less concerned with controlling the “centre” and with social organisation in general, there would inevitably be a transfer of the functions that should be carried out by the organs of the producers to “technical” bodies that more and more take on a life of their own. The GIC’s denial of these potential dangers was not without its consequences. The Dutch internationalists ended up rejecting any possibility that, even under communism, there could be a struggle by the producers to improve their conditions of work and of existence: the GIC refused to envisage the possibility of a society in which the struggle “for better living conditions never finished” and where “the struggle for the distribution of products goes on.[39] Does this not reintroduce the idea that the producer-consumers cannot struggle against themselves, including their “accounting centre”?

For the GIC, communism appears as an absolute equality between producers, which is to be realised right at the beginning of the transition period.[40] It is as though, under communism, there is no longer any natural (physical or psychological) inequality in production and consumption. But in fact communism can be defined as “real equality in a natural inequality.[41]     

[1]. A summary of the first volume can be found here:

[3]. See the articles in this series in International Review n°s 127-132

[4]. See the article from volume two of the series, “Unravelling the Russian enigma” in International Review n° 105

[6]. Bilan n°s 19,20,21,22, 23

[7].  Among studies of the Grundprinzipien, we can mention Paul Mattick’s 1970 introduction to the German re-edition of the book, available at The 1990 edition of the book, published by Movement for Workers’ Councils, contains a long commentary by Mike Baker, written shortly before his death, which also resulted in the disappearance of the group. Our own book, The Dutch and German Communist Left, 2001, contains a section on the Grundprinzipien which we are publishing as an annex to this article. This section demonstrates the continuity of our views with the criticisms of the text first raised by Mitchell’s articles. The text of the Grundprinzipien itself can be found both on libcom or at

[8]. Bilan n°19. “Les fondements de la production et de la distribution communistes”

[9]. Bilan n°s 33 and 34, “Nature et evolution de la révolution russe”

[10]. Bilan nº 34, p.1124

[11]. We should be more precise here: Mitchell, himself a former member of the LCI, was actually part of the Belgian Fraction which split from the LCI over the question of the war in Spain. In one of his series of articles on the period of transition (Bilan n° 38), he expressed some criticisms “of the comrades of Bilan”, feeling that they had not paid enough attention to the economic aspect of the transition period

[13]. Bilan n° 21, quoted in “The 1930s: debate on the period of transition”, International Review n° 127

[14]. Bilan  n° 37, republished in International Review n° 132

[15]. Bilan n°35, republished in International Review n° 131

[16]. Bilan n° 22, “Les internationalistes hollandais sur le programme de la révolution prolétarienne”

[17]. Bilan n° 35

[18]. Bilan n° 37

[19]. Grundprinzipien, chapter 6, “The socialisation of distribution”

[20]. Bilan n°22

[21]. Bilan n° 37

[22]. Grundprinzipien, chapter 19, “Alleged utopianism”

[23]. Bilan n°37

[24]. Bilan n° 37

[25]. Grundprinzipien, chapter 10, “Objective methods of control”

[26]. “De Arbeidersklasses en de Revolutie”, in Radencommunisme n° 4, March-April 1940

[27]. Some of Bilan’s texts on the period of transition have been translated into Italian: Rivoluzione e reazione (lo stato tardo-capitalistico nell'analisi delle Sinistra Communista), Universita degli studi de Massina, Milan, Dotl A2. Giuffre editore, 1983, introduced by Dino Erba and Arturo Peregalli

[28]. The question of the state in the period of transition was raised above all by the Essen tendency of the KAPD in 1927. The workers’ councils were identified with the “proletarian” state (see KAZ, Essen. P.1-11, 1927). The only contribution by the Berlin tendency was a text by Appel (Max Hempel) criticising “Lenin’s state communism” in Proletarier n° 4-6, May 1927: “Marx-Engels und Lenin über die Rolle des staates in der proletarischen Revolution”

[29]. Only Pannekoek studied the question of violence in the revolution, opposing both the anarchist principle of “non-violence” and emphasising the fundamental role of consciousness in the revolution: “...non-violence cannot be a conception of the proletariat. The proletariat will use violence when the time comes as long as it is useful and necessary. At certain moments workers’ violence can play a decisive role, but the main strength of the proletariat lies in the mastery over production... The working class must use all methods of struggle that are useful and effective, according to circumstances. And in all these forms of struggle its internal, moral strength is primary” (Pannekoek, anonymous, PIC, n°2, Feb 1936, “Geweld en geweldloosheid”)

[30]. The Grundprinzipien were republished with an introduction by Paul Mattick in 1970 in Berlin, by Rudger Blankertz Verlag, The Dutch edition, which contains many additions, was republished in 1972 by Uitgevery De Vlam, with an introduction by the Spartacusbond. A full French translation is due to be published by Cahiers Spartacus. An English edition was published in London by the “Movement for Workers’ Councils”, 1990

[31]. Fundamental Principles of Communist Production, 1930

[32]. Fundamental Principles, p30, emphasis by the GIC

[33]. A critique of the GIC’s text was published in Bilan from n° 11 to n° 38, written by Mitchell, a member of the Belgian LCI (his real name was Jehan van den Hoven). Hennaut, for the LCI, made a resume of the Grundprinzipien in Bilan n° 19, 20, 21.22 and 23

[34]. This thesis had been put forward in 1933 by the GIC, in the pamphlet Ontwikkelingsljnen in de landbouw p1-48

[35]. Grundprinzipien, as reprinted by De Vlam, 1970, p10

[36]. Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. A résumé and study of the different positions on the period of transition adopted by the lefts in the Third International can be found in the theses by J. Sie Sur la période de transition au socialisme: les positions des gauches de la 3ème Internationale, published by Cosmopolis, Leiden, 1986

[37]. This return to utopia can be found in Rühle, who in 1939 made a study of utopian movements; Mut zur Utopie! It was published in 1971 by Rohwohlt, Hamburg: Otto Rühle, Bauplane fur enie neue Geselschaft

[38]. “...on the one hand, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time. Labour time as the measure of value posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time; or the positing of an individual’s entire time as labour time, and his degradation therefore to mere worker, subsumption under labour” (Marx, Grundrisse, chapter on capital, notebook VII)

[39]. Grundprinzipien, p.40

[40]. Most of the communist lefts insisted, by contrast, that equality in the distribution of consumer products was impossible right at the beginning of the period of transition. Above all in a period of civil war, where the new power of the councils would have to rely on the existence of specialists

[41]. Bilan n° 35, Sept to Oct 1936, “Problèmes de la période de transition”, by Mitchell