Bilan, the Dutch left, and the transition to communism (ii)

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

In the previous article in this series, we looked at the way the Belgian/Italian left communists around the review Bilan in the 1930s criticised the conceptions of the Dutch council communists regarding the transition from capitalism to communism. We looked mainly at the political aspects of the transition period, in particular Bilan’s argument that the Dutch comrades underestimated the problems posed by the proletarian revolution and the inevitable recomposition of a form of state power during the transitional period. In this article we will study Bilan’s criticisms of the central focus of the Dutch communists book Grundprinzipien Kommunistischer Produktion und Veiteilung (Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, published by the Groep van Internationale Communisten, GIC): the economic programme of the proletarian revolution.

Their criticisms centre round two main areas:

  • the problem of value and its elimination

  • the system of remuneration in the transition period

Value and its elimination

The author of the Bilan articles, Mitchell, begins by affirming that the proletarian revolution cannot immediately introduce integral communism, but only a transitional, hybrid social form, still marked ideologically by the ‘stigmata’ of the past and by its more material incarnations: the law of value, and thus even by money and wages, even if in a modified form. In short, labour power does not immediately cease to be a commodity because the means of production has become collective property. It continues to be measured in terms of ‘value’, that mysterious quality which “while finding its source in the activity of a physical force – labour – has no material reality in itself” (Bilan 34, republished in IR 130). Regarding the difficulties posed by the whole concept of value, Mitchell quotes Marx from his Preface to Capital, where he notes that, regarding the value-form, “the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all” (and it is fair to say that this question remains a source of puzzlement and controversy even among genuine followers of Marx...).

In his own effort to get to the bottom of it all, to discover what makes a commodity ‘worth’ something on the market, Marx, in line with the classical economists, recognised the core of value is in concrete human activity, in labour carried out within a given social relationship – more precisely, in the average labour time embodied in the commodity. It is not a pure result of supply and demand, or arbitrary whims and decisions, even if these elements may cause fluctuations of price. It is thus the regulating principle behind the anarchy of the market. But Marx went beyond the classical economists in showing how it is also the basis for the particular form of exploitation in bourgeois society and of the specific character of the crisis and breakdown of capitalism, and thus of a complete loss of control by humanity over its own productive activity. These revelations led to the majority of bourgeois economists abandoning the labour theory of value even before the capitalist system entered its epoch of decline.

In 1928, the Soviet economist I I Rubin, soon to be accused of deviation from marxism and eliminated along with thousands of other communists, published a masterly analysis of Marx’s theory of value, which appeared in English in 1972 under the title Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, published by Black and Red. From the beginning of the work, he insists that Marx’s theory of value is inseparable from his critique of commodity fetishism and the “reification” of human relations in bourgeois society – the transformation of a relationship between people into a relationship between things:

Value is a production relation among autonomous commodity producers; it assumes the form of being a property of things and is connected with the distribution of social labour. Or, looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, value is the property of the product of labour of each commodity producer which makes it exchangeable for the products of labour of any other commodity producer in a determined ratio which corresponds to a given level of productivity of labour in the different branches of production. We are dealing with a human relation which acquires the form of being a property of things and which is connected with the process of distribution of labour in production. In other words, we are dealing with reified production relations among people. The reification of labour in value is the most important conclusion of the theory of fetishism, which explains the inevitability of ‘reification’ of production relations among people in a commodity economy." (Rubin, p72, chapter 8, ‘Basic characteristics of Marx’s theory of value’).

The Dutch left were certainly aware that the question of value and its elimination was key to the transition towards communism. Their book was an attempt to elaborate a method that could guide the working class away from a society where their products rule over them, to one where the producers are in direct command of the entirety of production and consumption. Their driving concern was to replace the “reified” relations characteristic of capitalist society with the simple transparency of social relations which Marx alludes to in the first chapter of Capital when he describes the future society of associated producers.

How did the Dutch comrades envisage this being achieved? As we wrote in the previous article,

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”.

For Mitchell, as we have seen, the law of value inevitably persists during the transition period. This is certainly the case during the phase of civil war, where the proletarian bastion “cannot abstract itself from a world economy which continues to evolve on a capitalist basis” (Bilan 34). But he also argues that even within the “proletarian economy” (and after the victory over the bourgeoisie in the civil war) not all sectors of the economy can be immediately socialised (he had in mind the example of the huge peasant sector in Russia and throughout the peripheries of the capitalist system). There will thus be exchange between the socialised sector and these very considerable vestiges of small-scale production, and this will impose, with more or less weight, the laws of the market on the sector directly controlled by the proletariat. The law of value, instead of being abolished by decree, must instead go through a kind of historical reversion: “the law of value, instead of developing the way it did by going from simple commodity production to capitalist production must go through the reverse process of regression and extinction which leads from the ‘mixed’ economy to full communism” (Bilan 34).

Mitchell considers that the Dutch comrades are deluded in thinking that you can abolish the law of value simply through the calculation of labour time. For one thing, their idea of formulating a kind of mathematical law of accounting that will make it possible to do away with the value-form will encounter considerable difficulties. To precisely measure labour value, you need to establish the ‘socially average’ labour time embodied in commodities. But the unit of this social average can only be unskilled or simple labour, i.e. labour in itsmost elementary expression: skilled or compound labour needs to be reduced to its simplest form. And in Mitchell’s view Marx himself accepted that he did not manage to solve this problem. In sum, “the reduction of compound labour to simple labour (which is the real unit of measure) remains unexplained, and that as a result the elaboration of a scientific method for calculating labour time, which is a necessary function of this process of reduction, is impossible. Probably the conditions for the emergence of such a law will only come together when it is no longer of any use: i.e. when production can answer all needs and when, as a result, society will no longer need to calculate labour: the administration of things will only require a simple register of what has been produced. In the economic domain we can thus see an analogy with political life, when democracy will be superfluous at the moment that it has been fully realised” (Bilan 34).

Perhaps more important is Mitchell’s charge that both in their means of advancing towards the higher goals, and in their definition of the more advanced stages of the new society, the Grundprinzipien’s vision of communism actually contains a disguised form of the law of value, since it still contains its essence, the measure of labour by socially average labour time.

To support this argument, Mitchell warns that there is a danger that the Grundprinzipien’s ‘non-centralised’ network of enterprises could actually function as a society of commodity production (not dissimilar from the anarcho-syndicalist view that the Dutch comrades rightly criticise in their book):

They note however that ‘the suppression of the market must be interpreted in the sense that while the market appears to survive under communism, its social content as regards circulation is entirely different: the circulation of products on the basis of labour time is the basis of new social relation’ (p 110). But if the market survives (even if its form and basis are different) it can only function on the basis of value. This is what the Dutch internationalists don't seem to see, ‘subjugated’, as they are, to their formulation about ‘labour time’, which in substance is nothing but value itself. Furthermore, for them it is not excluded that in ‘communism’ we will still talk about ‘value’; but they refrain from drawing out the significance of this with regards to the mechanism of the social relations that result from maintaining labour time as a unit of measurement. Instead they conclude that since the content of value will have changed, all we need to do is replace the term value with the term production time. But this obviously doesn't change the economic reality at all; it's the same thing when they say that there is no longer any exchange of products, but only the passage of products (p 53-54). Equally: ‘instead of the function of money, we will have the registering of the movement of products, social accounting on the basis of the average social labour time’ (p 55)”.

The remuneration of labour and the critique of egalitarianism

Mitchell’s criticism of the Dutch left’s advocacy of equal remuneration through the system of labour time vouchers is connected to a more general criticism, which we looked at in the first part of this article: that of an abstract vision where everything operates smoothly from the day after the insurrection. Mitchell does recognise that both the Dutch comrades and Hennaut share Marx’s distinction (developed in the Critique of the Gotha Programme) between the lower and higher stages of communism, and that for both, in the first stage, there is still a persistence of “bourgeois right”. But for Mitchell, the Dutch comrades have a one-sided interpretation of what Marx was saying in this document:

But apart from this, the Dutch internationalists falsify the significance of Marx's words about the repartition of products. When they say that the worker receives from the process of distribution a pro rata of the quantity of labour he has given, they only discover one aspect of the dual inequality which we have underlined, and it is the one which results from the social situation of the worker (p 81); but they don't dwell on the other aspect, which expresses the fact that the workers, in the same amount of labour time, provide different quantities of simple labour (simple labour which is the common measure exerted through the play of value), thus giving rise to unequal repartition. They prefer to stick with their demand for the suppression of inequality in wages, which remains hanging in mid air because the suppression of capitalist wage labour does not immediately result in the disappearance of the differences in the remuneration of labour”. (Bilan 35, republished in IR 131).

In other words, although the Dutch comrades are in continuity with Marx who saw that the differing situations of individual workers mean that there would be a persistence of inequality (“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer worker is married, another is not, one has more children than another, and so on and so forth”, as Marx puts it in Critique of the Gotha Programme ), they ignore the deeper problem of the calculation of simple labour, which means that remunerating workers on the basis of hours of labour alone means that workers in the same social situation but working with different means of production will still not be equally rewarded.

Mitchell criticises Hennaut on similar grounds:

Comrade Hennaut comes up with a similar solution to the problem of distribution in the period of transition, a solution which he also draws from a mistaken, because incomplete, interpretation of Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme. In Bilan, p 747, he said: the inequality which still exists in the first phase of socialism results not from an unequal remuneration being applied to various kinds of labour: the simple work of the labourer or the compound work of the engineer, with all the stages in between. No, all these types of labour are of equal worth, only their duration and intensity has to be measured; inequality results from the fact that men who have different capacities and needs are carrying out the same tasks with the same resources’. And Hennaut inverses Marx's thinking when he locates inequality in the fact that the part of the social profit remains equal - an equal amount of remuneration of course - for each individual, whereas their needs and the effort made to achieve the same remuneration are different; whereas, as we have indicated, Marx saw inequality in the fact that individuals received unequal shares because they provided unequal shares of labour and this is the basis for the application of bourgeois equal rights.” (ibid).

At the same time, underlying this rejection of ‘absolute’ egalitarianism in the earlier phases of the revolution is a deeper critique of the very notion of equality:

the fact that in a proletarian economy the basic motive force is no longer the ceaselessly enlarged production of surplus value and of capital but the unlimited production of use values does not mean that the conditions are right for a levelling of "wages" that translates into equality in consumption. In fact, such an equality can exist neither at the beginning of the transitional period nor in the communist phase, which is based on the formula "to each according to his needs". In reality, formal equality can never exist, while communism will finally realise a real equality in natural inequality” (ibid)

Marx’s communism began with a rejection of ‘barracks’ or crude communism which flourished in the early days of the workers’ movement; and against this kind of ‘downward’ collectivism – realised to some degree by Stalinist state capitalism - it opposes an associationof free individuals where natural ‘inequality’ or diversity, will be positively cultivated.

Labour time vouchers and the wage system

The other target of Mitchell’s critique is the GIC’s view that recompensing labour on the basis of labour time – the famous system of labour time vouchers – has already overcome the essentials of the wage system. Mitchell does not seem to disagree with Marx’s advocacy of this system in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, since he quotes it in his article without criticism. He also agrees with Marx that in this method of distribution, money has lost its characteristic as “abstract wealth’ capable of appropriating any kind of wealth” (Bilan 34). But unlike the GIC, Mitchell emphasises its continuity with the wage system rather than its discontinuity, since he puts particular emphasis on the passage from Gotha where Marx says frankly that

"Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labour, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form".

In this sense, it seems, Mitchell considers that the labour time vouchers are a kind of wage. Nor does he see any superior system in the first stages of the revolution: the system of equal rationing in the Russian revolution was this was “not an economic method capable of ensuring the systematic development of the economy; it was the regime of a people under siege and concentrating all its energies on the civil war”(Bilan 35).

For Mitchell, the key to really abolishing value was not in selecting the particular forms through which labour would be rewarded in the period of transition, but in overcoming the narrow horizons of bourgeois right by creating a situation where in Marx’s words, “all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly”. Only such a society could inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”.

Comments on a response to Mitchell’s critique

The comrades of the GIC did not reply to Mitchell’s criticisms and council communism as an organised current has more or less disappeared. But the American comrade David Adam, who has written extensively about Marx, Lenin and the transition period1, does to a certain extent identify with the tradition represented by GIC and Mattick in America. In correspondence with the author of this article, he made these comments about Mitchell and Bilan :

With regard to Bilan's reading of Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme, I think it is confused. They clearly identify the first phase of communism with transition to communism and the law of value, and seem to identify the existence of ‘bourgeois right’ with the law of value. I think this creates problems, not least of which is the interpretation of the Grundprinzipien. They identify the sort of accounting that was called for by the Dutch left with the law of value, when the Grundprinzipien is clear that they are talking about a socialist society emerging after the period of proletarian dictatorship, which is in line with Marx. Mitchell also seems to think that the Dutch left were talking about a transitional phase in which the market still existed, and this is not the case. So I think this diminishes the value of the criticism of the Grundprinzipien, because I don't think they have understood Marx. And this could mean that they don't see the necessity for transformation of economic relations right from the beginning of the revolutionary process, as if the law of value can simply go through ‘profound changes in nature’ and eventually disappear. The whole idea of its disappearance is bound up with the emergence of effective social control over production, which is what the first phase of communism addresses. But Bilan seems to say that once such planning mechanisms are found they will no longer be necessary. I don't think this is true”.

There are a number of different elements here.

  1. Were the Dutch comrades always clear about the distinction between the lower and higher stages? We have seen that Mitchell accepts that they did make this distinction. In the previous article, we also quoted a passage from the Grundprinzipien which clearly recognises that the measurement of individual labour becomes less important as integral communism is reached. But we have also seen that the Grundprinzipien contain a number of ambiguities. As we noted in the first part of this article, they seem to speak far too soon of a society operating as an association of free and equal producers, and they don’t always clearly state whether they are talking about a particular proletarian outpost or a world in which the entire bourgeoisie has been overthrown.

  2. Perhaps the issue here is whether Marx himself envisaged the lower stage as beginning after or during the proletarian dictatorship. This would require a much longer discussion. It is certainly true that the period of transition in the full sense cannot get underway in a phase dominated by civil war and the struggle against the bourgeoisie. But in our view even after this ‘initial’ political and military victory over the old ruling class, the proletariat can only begin the positive communist transformation of society on the basis of its political domination, because it will not be the only class in society. We will return to this problem in a future article.

  3. Is the measurement of production and distribution in terms of labour time necessarily a form of value, as Mitchell implies when he criticises the Dutch left for being “subjugated’, as they are, to their formulation about ‘labour time’, which in substance is nothing but value itself.” (Bilan 34, quoted above)? As ever with the question of value, this raises complex questions. Can there be value without exchange value?

It’s true that Marx was obliged, in Capital, to make a theoretical distinction between value and exchange value,

We have seen that when commodities are exchanged, their exchange value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use value. But if we abstract from their use value, there remains their Value as defined above. Therefore, the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value. The progress of our investigation will show that exchange value is the only form in which the value of commodities can manifest itself or be expressed. For the present, however, we have to consider the nature of value independently of this, its form”2.

However, as Rubin points out, it is nonetheless the case that:

“...the value form’ is the most general form of the commodity economy; it is characteristic of the social form which is acquired by the process of production at a determined level of historical development. Since political economy analyzes a historically transient social form of production, commodity capitalist production, the ‘form of value’ is one of the foundation stones of Marx's theory of value. As can be seen from the sentences quoted above, the ‘form of value’ is closely related to the ‘commodity form,’ i.e., to the basic characteristic of the contemporary economy, the fact that the products of labour are produced by autonomous, private producers. A working connection between producers is brought about only by means of the exchange of commodities3.

Both aspects – value and exchange value - only have a general application in the context of the social relations of capitalist commodity society. A society which no longer functions on the basis of exchange between independent economic units is no longer regulated by the law of value, so the question goes back to the degree to which the Dutch left envisaged the survival of exchange relations in the lower stage of communism. And as we have noted, there are ambiguities in the Grunprinzipien about this too. Earlier on in this article we quoted Mitchell’s argument that the network of enterprises envisaged by the GIC appears to retain a market relationship of sorts. On the other hand, there are other passages which go in the opposite direction and there is a strong case for arguing that they express the thinking of the GIC much more accurately. For example, in chapter 2, in the section headed ‘Free Communism’, the GIC develops a critique of the French anarchist Faure which makes it clear that they are in favour of forging the economy into a single unit: “The substance of the matter is not that one would hold it against the Faurian system that it seeks to forge the entire economy into one single unit; such an act of combination is indeed the end purpose of the process of development which is brought to fruition by the combined producers and consumers. Having done this, however, the basis must then be provided to ensure that they themselves keep control of it”.

We should add that Mitchell’s argument that any form of measurement of labour time is essentially an expression of value is not supported by Marx’s approach to the question in his descriptions of communist society. In the Grundrisse, for example, Marx argues that “economy of time along with the planned distribution of labour time among the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production. It becomes law, there, to an even higher degree. However, this is essentially different from a measurement of exchange values (labour or products) by labour time”.4

The real weakness of the GIK lies, we would argue, less in their occasional concessions to the idea of the market, but in their inordinate faith in the system of accounting. As they say in the sentence which follows the passage just cited: “To achieve this they must keep an exact account of the labour-hours used up, in every form of economic activity, in order that they may know exactly how much labour-time is embodied in each product. Then it is quite unnecessary for the right of decision as to how the social product is to be distributed to be handed over to any ‘central administration’; on the contrary, the producers themselves in each factory or other establishments can then determine this through their computation of labour-time expended”. No doubt the computation of the exact amount of labour time expended by the producers is extremely important, but the GIC seems to radically underestimate the degree to which maintaining control over economic and political life during the transition period is a struggle for the development of class consciousness, for the conscious construction of new social relationships, a struggle which goes far deeper than elaborating a system of accounting.

Does Bilan underestimate the need for radical social and economic change from the start? This is perhaps a more substantial criticism. For example, in Mitchell’s critique of egalitarian remuneration he argues that this would undermine the productivity of labour and implies that in order to arrive at communism a prodigious development of the productive forces is required. It’s certainly true that the attainment of communism depends on a profound development and transformation of the productive forces. But the key question here is this: on what basis will this development take place? We know that the last chapter of Mitchell’s study contains a clear rejection of ‘productivism’, the sacrificing of workers’ consumption in the interests of building up industry, and throughout its existence this was a fundamental aspect of Bilan’s critique of the so-called ‘achievements of socialism’ in the USSR. Nonetheless, since Mitchell is so insistent that the wages system, in its essentials at least, cannot be this done away with until a much later stage of the revolutionary transformation, the doubt remains that Mitchell is advocating a more worker-oriented version of ‘socialist accumulation’.

In the final issue of Bilan (no 46, December-January 1938) a reader responding to the ‘Problems of the Period of Transition’ series goes so far as to dismiss the comrades of Bilan as a new species of reformists whose revolution will merely replace one set of masters with another (see the appendix for the text of this letter and Mitchell’s response).

We obviously think that this accusation is both uncomradely and unfounded but it is given a semblance of reality by two key weaknesses in Bilan’s theoretical armoury: their difficulty in seeing the capitalist nature of the USSR even in the 1930s, and their inability to break with the notion of the dictatorship of the party. Despite all their criticisms of the Stalinist regime and their recognition that a form of exploitation did exist in the USSR, they still clung to the view that the collectivised nature of the ‘Soviet’ economy conferred on it a proletarian character, however degenerated. This seems to betray a difficulty to draw the consequences from what was already basically understood by the Italian left – i.e.that an economy founded on the wage relationship can only be capitalist, whether or not the means of production are ‘individually’ or ‘collectively’ owned. And a result of this difficulty would be a reluctance to see the struggle against the wage form as being an integral part of the social revolution. And this is just another aspect of the struggle for what David Adam calls “effective social control of production” by the workers themselves.

At the same time, the idea that the role of the party is to exercise the proletarian dictatorship (albeit while somehow avoiding an entanglement with the state5) runs counter to the need for the working class to impose its control over both production and the apparatus of political power. It’s certainly true that the workers will have to learn a vast amount to take charge of production, not just in the framework of the individual enterprise but across an entire society. The same applies to the question of political power, which in any case is not a separate sphere from the problem of reorganising economic life. It’s also true that Bilan always understood that the workers would need to learn from their own mistakes and that they could not be coerced towards socialism. Nevertheless the idea of the dictatorship of the party still retains the somewhat substitutionist idea that the workers will only be able to take full control of their destiny at some point in the future, and that in the meantime a minority of the class must hold onto power ‘on their behalf’.

Precisely because the Italian left was a proletarian current and not a variant of reformism, these weaknesses would in time be addressed and overcome, particularly by the French Fraction and by elements in the party formed in Italy in 1943. In our view, it was the French Fraction, later the Gauche Communiste de France, which took these clarifications the furthest, and it is no accident that it was able, in the years after World War Two, to engage in a fruitful debate with the tradition and organisations of the Dutch communist left. We will take this up in the next article in this series.

We don’t pretend to have resolved all the questions raised by the debate between the Italian and Dutch lefts on the period of transition. These questions – such as how the law of value will be eliminated, how labour will be remunerated, how the workers will keep control over production and distribution – remain to be clarified and indeed can only be finally resolved in the course of a revolution itself. But we do think that the contributions and discussions developed by these revolutionaries in a dark period of defeat for the working class remain an indispensable theoretical point of departure for the debates that will one day be used to guide the practical transformation of society.

CD Ward

Appendix: Echo of the study of the period of transition, Bilan 46, December-January 1938

Just as Bilan was going to press, the group received a letter from a correspondent in the Parisian suburb of Clichy. The letter and the reply from Mitchell were printed in the following issue and we reproduce both here.

We have received from a reader in Clichy a letter of critique which we publish in full followed by some brief comments from our collaborator. We hope our impatient correspondent will excuse us for not having put his letter in the previous issue, but it arrived at exactly the same moment that this issue was coming off the press.

On the period of transition

After the publication in Bilan of Hennaut’s summary of the book by the Dutch left communists on the ‘fundamentals of communist production and distribution’, some may have thought that the reformists of right and left had been definitively disarmed and they wouldn’t dare to move an inch. But that is if you don’t know them very well. In the issue which published the end of the summary, their criticisms could already be heard: the Dutch comrades, like Hennaut, don’t think like marxists...Then we had Mitchell’s critical study on ‘The problems of the period of transition’. The aim of this study was, of course, to demonstrate the anti-marxist utopianism of those who believe that the proletarian revolution will really free the workers from exploitation in all its forms. Thus we should not be astonished that all through his article Mitchell is at pains to prove, with the use of numerous quotes, that this revolution will only serve to bring a new master to the proletarians who made it – just like the revolutions of the past. We recognise the traditional standpoint of reformists of all types. What’s more Mitchell was careful to warn is in his ‘introductory expose’ that his work would deal with the following points: “ a) the historic conditions in which the proletarian revolution arises; b) the necessity for the transitional state; c) the economic and social categories which will of necessity survive in the transitional phase; d) finally, some elements regarding a proletarian management of the transitional state”.

Once these points have been enounced, it was easy to imagine what the article would be like. Mitchell is not embarrassed to affirm, a priori, the survival after the revolution of “the economic and social categories which will of necessity (!) survive in the transitional phase”. This assertion alone is enough for anyone with an alert mind to see what’s coming next. What is most astonishing in Mitchell’s article is the abundance of quotes which a revolutionary marxist could at any moment turn against what he tries to prove and justify. One doesn’t need 50 pages of Bilan to annihilate the sage arguments of the reformist Mitchell. All those who have read Marx and Engels know that, for them, the famous period of transition marks the end of the capitalist society and the birth of an entirely new society in which the exploitation of man by man will have ceased to exist; i.e. where classes will have disappeared and the state as such will have no reason to exist. Now, in the society of transition as Mitchell and all the avowed reformists understand it, the exploitation of the proletariat subsists and in the same way as it does under the capitalist regime: by means of wage labour. In this society there will be a scale of wages...just like now! This will make it possible to socialise (?) the most advanced branches of production; then, we don’t know when or how, all of industrial and agricultural production. In other words, during the transitional phase, a part of the workers will continue to be exploited by particular people, with the others already being exploited by the State-Boss. Starting from this viewpoint, the higher phase of communism would correspond to the full statification of production – to state capitalism as we see operating in Russia! The most revolting thing is that Mitchell dares to base himself on Marx and Engels to defend such a point of view. We know that Stalin also dared in his speech of June 2 1931 to base himself on Marx to justify the incredible inequality of wages reigning in the USSR, and just like Mitchell, he did so by invoking the quality of labour supplied. However Marx explained himself clearly on this subject in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. Do we need to recall that for Marx the inequality which subsists in the first phase of communism does not derive, contrary to what Mitchell thinks, from inequality in the retribution of labour, but simply from the fact that the workers don’t always live in the same way”

One worker is married”, says Marx, “another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal”. This is so clear it doesn’t need further elaboration

We know that, for Marx, “wage labour is the precondition for the existence of capital”, which means that if we want to kill capital, we have to abolish wage labour. But the reformists don’t think this way at all: for them the revolution means that all capital has to progressively be taken over by the state so that it becomes the only master. What they want is to replace private capitalism with state capitalism. But don’t talk to them about abolishing capitalist exploitation, about destroying the state machine which serves to maintain this exploitation: the proletarians must make the revolution solely in order to change their master. All those who see the revolution as a way of liberating yourself from exploitation are vulgar utopians. Revolutionary workers be warned!

Mitchell’s reply

Nothing is more difficult than replying to a critique which takes the liberty of decrying material which it has not assimilated or has assimilated very imperfectly and which believes all the more easily that it has come up with the right formulations, even though they are in fact purely illusory.

Thus our correspondent should not be astonished if we suggest to him that the discussion continues on the basis of an attentive and thorough examination of the study that has been published.

Let’s reassure our contradictor right away about our so-called “left reformism”: everything that he invokes against is to justify this charge of “reformism” is precisely what is fought in our study in the least equivocal way possible. What’s more, it’s not enough for our correspondent to reproach us for the “abundance” of our quotes: he also has to prove what he insinuates, i.e. that these quotes have a meaning that runs counter to the one we give hem. If he can’t demonstrate this, it would still be permissible, if he likes facile and simplistic answers, to contest the bases of certain conceptions, for example Marx’s remarks about the necessity to temporarily tolerate unequal remuneration of labour in the transitional period. He could then “repudiate” Marx, but not deform his thought.

On the question of the remuneration of labour, since our correspondent is of the opinion that Marx did not put things the way we say he did, he should go back over the whole part of our work where we deal with the measurement of labour (Bilan 34, p 1133 to 1138....) and the whole part where we deal with the remuneration of labour, particularly beginning at the bottom of page 1157 up to the top of the second column on page 1159, Bilan no. 35.

Furthermore, whether the comrade likes it or not, it is Marx who affirmed the transitional survival of capitalist categories like value, money and wages since the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat “is still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges” (see Critique of the Gotha Programme and p 1137 of Bilan)

Again, on the problem of the state, how can be seen as defenders of state capitalism on the basis of what we developed in the second part of our work (Bilan 31, p 1035).

If our correspondent doesn’t share our opinion on this major question, the he should at least give his own opinion and engage in a positive critique.


2 Capital Vol 1, chapter 1, p 46)

3 Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, chapter 12. ‘Content and form of value’, p114-115 of the 1972 edition

4 Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook 1, pp. 172-3. Mitchell’s assumption that measurement of labour time always equals value is carried over into the criticisms of the Grundprinzipien in our book on the Dutch left. The concluding paragraph of this section, reproduced as an annex to the first part of the article, puts it thus: “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”. The latter point is no doubt taken from the passage in the Grundrisse where Marx writes: 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” (Marx, Grundrisse notebook VII, p708). But for Marx this did not imply that society would cease measuring the time it put into maintaining and reproducing itself (the material basis for setting free the creative capacities of the individual). This is made plain in Theories of Surplus Value where Marx writes: Labour-time, even if exchange-value is eliminated, always remains the creative substance of wealth and the measure of the cost of its production. But free time, disposable time, is wealth itself, partly for the enjoyment of the product, partly for free activity which—unlike labour—is not dominated by the pressure of an extraneous purpose which must be fulfilled, and the fulfilment of which is regarded as a natural necessity or a social duty, according to one’s inclination”. Theories of Surplus Value, Book III

5 Bilan’s contradictory position on ‘the dictatorship of the party’ is examined at greater length in a previous article: