Some Stories About Communization

by cominsitu


by Jasper Bernes, Nov 2020-Jan 2021, via Substack

(see also Planning and Anarchy (2020), and Belly of the Revolution (2018))

Part 1, Nov 26, 2020

I want to do a series of posts on the theory of “communization” as it has developed since 1968, because it seems to me there is a great deal more interest in the term and desire than there is comprehension. There are many reasons for the abuse the word has suffered, but foremost is that, in France, from whence it derives, “communization” never at first served to name a tendency or a coherent theory. It was simply a term of art that a loosely connected network of communist projects used to explain their vision of communist revolution.

Even as the term courant communisateur – communizing tendency, or communizer current–began to be applied to these groups retrospectively, many questioned and resisted the term, drawing attention to the way that it conflated advocates of communization, who can exist in the world here and now, with those who practice communization, that is with people who do not yet exist.

Dating a concept like this to a single author or text is dangerously reifying, since most of these texts were written, edited, and discussed collaboratively, and were often first circulated in unsigned forms. Nonetheless, we can say that the seminal contribution was the essay Gilles Dauvé wrote in 1969, On Ultraleft Ideology [“Sur l’ideologie ultra-left], written for the national meeting of the council-communist group Informations et Correspondances Ouvières, and intended to engage Paul Mattick in debate. Later, the Paris bookstore and meeting-place La Vieille Taupe [The old mole] would republish the essay as “Contribution to a Critique of the Ultra-left”. Dauvé would rework this article for publication in Le mouvement communiste in the early 70sthe first publication where the theory of communization was elaborated. Fredy Perlman, then the US publisher for the Situationist International and by extension the ultraleft, gathered these articles together as Eclipse and Reemergence of the Communist Movement, still the best-known French text on communization and certainly ground zero for English-language discussion of the term. This is the first point: communization emerges as a critique, and can’t really be understood without understanding the object of critique, which is why most documents of communization involve a retelling of the story of the entire workers’ movement from the 19th-century forward.

I haven’t really told you what communization is because I think the best way to understand it at first is as the product of a problem, a milieu, and a conjuncture, which will eventually become abstract enough to stand on its own as theory. But the theory is impossible to understand without this history, a history which will allow us to approach communization in at least a dozen different ways.

1.     Synthesis

Communization is first and foremost not just a critique but a critical synthesis, a kind of irreversible chemistry of ideas, in which the theory of revolution found in council communism, that is, in the Dutch-German ultraleft, was brought together with the ideas of Amadeo Bordiga and the Italian communism left—from which it had been up until then largely separated– to produce a novel theoretical construct, opposed to both councilism and Bordigism. The first moment of this synthesis is the text just named, published in the main French organ of councilism and directed to the most significant living council communist. Whereas the Dutch-German ultraleft conceived communist revolution formally, as the extension worker’s self-management to control over the entirety of the economy, Bordiga and his associates draw attention to the content of communism, its logical and axiomatic definition:

Rejecting the theory of workers’ self-management [of the council communists], Bordigism performs one of the most trenchant critiques of the Russian [USSR] economy, putting in the forefront not the bureaucracy, as Trotskyists and                    Socialisme ou Barbarie do, but the relations of production. The revolution, suggests the Bordigist press, must consist of the destruction of the law of value and exchange. [collected in Rupture dans la theorie de la révolution: Textes 1965-75]

The term communization is not used in this essay but it’s implied by the synthesis, and everything that follows under the name of communization can be considered an extension of this synthesis.

What is being synthesized? Well, Bordigism and councilism, but that’s imprecise. From councilism, Dauvé retains the insistence on proletarian self-organization, the radical commitment to proletarian class struggle as theory. But this is not enough, the critique implies. It is not enough to simply seize power, it is not just a matter of form, but a matter of content. It’s not enough to form councils and take over the factories, as the workers did partially in ’68. You have to do something with the power seized too, and this is what did not happen in 1968 and what the ultraleft groups associated with it, Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationist International, ICO, and other stars in the broader ultraleft revival could not explain.

What is this content? Well, it’s the destruction of value and exchange, which for Dauve is identical with communism. I hope to show at some point how this definition falls short and introduces problems for the theory of communization but it must be noted first that for readers familiar with the Bordigist literature the phrase is shorthand and refers to something rather concrete—direct distribution of goods without the use of money, wages, or other mechanisms. Otherwise, the phrase describing the content of communism is simply another formalism—how can the destruction of a form be the content of communism?

At stake were practical questions of revolutionary organization. Bordiga had written at great length about the importance of such measures for communist revolution, and as a critique of what he thought was a state capitalism operative in Russia. This brings us to the final point for these writers: the critical Marxist vocabulary, in the theory of communization, is at once a description of communism. In the category of value, inherited from Marx, we find the kernel description (inverted) of communism. In Bordiga’s critique of the USSR, a theory of revolution as communism. The synthesis links communism directly to the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy in a manner that is unique and unprecedented. [To be continued]

Note: this is a working draft. Readers are encouraged to comment with factual corrections and other relevant remarks.]

Part 2: Dec 10, 2020


communization, the history of a theory of the future

The other thing I wanted to say about communization I hinted at already in the last post, but it deserves its own exposition. Communization remains relevant for us not because it is the thought of the revolutionary wave of ’68, but because it is the thought which has most attempted to come to terms with the failure of ’68, and particularly those theories it pushed to the front. This is difficult for US readers, or at least it was for me, because we are used to thinking of May 68 and its global complement as a kind of triumph, neither a victory nor a culmination, but the opening of a door to the future, or at least sexy and fun if a little embarrassing, like a Maoist-period Godard film.

The communization tendency is interesting because it regarded 1968 from the start as a failure, and one that in fact put to the test, and found desperately lacking, the most advanced theory of its day, the late phase of the Situationist International. It was, as they learned through participating in it and thinking through the consequences of their participation, “the peak of a shockwave which died away in 72-74.” But such knowledge came with a price, apparently, and the history of the tendency in the 70s shows participants struggling with the weight of an isolating pessimism while the rest of the left staggered forward obliviously. It did not see itself, or so it appears in the documents we are left, at the head of a glorious new movement, but instead faced with a series of puzzling conundra which are only now being resolved in theory, as attempts to overcome them in practice are more or less our new tactical repertoire and strategic horizon. This is the reason why this thought is still alive for us today, whereas the other offspring of 1968 are largely sterile exercises in Althusserian blackboard diagrams. I quote here a long passage from a reflection on this period, composed in the late 1970s, which gives the unique flavor of this critique:

The explosion did not take place in either the most modern sectors of the industrialised world, or those most in difficulty, but where the boom over the previous twenty years was least well adapted to national conditions. Between 1954 and 1974 the proportion of wage workers in the French population rose from 62% to 81% (the increase above allaffecting those employees, technicians and middle managers who made up the new middle classes). We witnessed the fusion of violent workers demands and of anti-authoritarian, anti-repressive student aspirations which soon extended to a good part of the new middle classes. The movement was also anti-cultural in that culture formed a safety deposit box and was the opposite of creativity. It thus revived the refusal of art and culture which had appeared about 1914-18.

May 68 was more than a split between the trade unions and parties on one side, and a great many workers on the other. It was also a demand for existence, which in the   absence in practice of a social breakdown, appeared more as expression than action.      People wanted to communicate, to speak, to say that which could not be done. The rejection of the past didn’t succeed in giving itself a content, and thus a present. The    slogans : « I believe in the reality of my desires », « Under the pavingstones, the beach    », referred to a different possibility, but one which, in order to become possible,       presupposed . . . a revolution. In its absence, this demand could only become adaptation or madness. The themes of May took the form of exhortations, replacing 19th century guilt with the imperative of pleasure.

Indeed, aside from a weak minority, the workers, the bourgeoisie, most of the «protestors » and the State, in short everybody, acted as if there was an “implicit pact” prohibiting everyone from going too far. Sign of its limit : people did not dare, did not even want to make a revolution, not even begin it. Sign of strength : people refused the political game of a pseudo-revolution, since a real one could only be something total. Even in the rue Gay-Lussac the violence remained well on this side of the working class violence before 1914, or that seen in the United States in the Thirties. The confrontations between workers and trade unions were less brutal than in the past, for example at Renault in 1947.

In the factories in 1968 one hardly found the festive atmosphere of 1936. People felt that something had happened which could go further but they avoided doing so. The atmosphere of gravity which reigned was coupled with a resentment against the unions, a convenient scapegoat, whereas they were only able to keep control through the behaviour of the rank and file. The gaiety was elsewhere, in the streets. This is why May 68 could neither reproduce, or lead to, a revolutionary return during the years which followed. The movement generated a reformism which fed on the neutralisation of its most virulent aspects. History doesn’t pass the dish around a second time.

Knowledge of this “implicit pact,” knowledge of the fact that 1968 had not been betrayed by unions, or defeated by the state, or weakened by reactionaries, but hollowed out from within, was a difficult weight to bear, especially when everyone else insisted on seeing things as being on the upswing, imagining themselves swept up toward the horizon by the wind from the east. Here is what they are able to see which others can’t in the struggles of their time:

Bizarrely, at a time when people spoke so much of management, one saw that the workers disassociated themselves from all strike administration. Abandoning control of the factories to the trade unions was a sign of weakness, but also of the fact that they were conscious that the problem lay elsewhere. Five years later, in 1973, in a big strike at Laval, workers purely and simply left the factory for three weeks. Like the « de-politicization » of which so much has been said, this loss of interest in the company, in work and in its reorganisation, is ambivalent, and cannot be interpreted except in relation to everything else. Communism was certainly present in 1968, but only in relief, in negative. At Nantes in 1968, and later at SEAT at Barcelona (1971) or Quebec (1972), strikers would take over districts or cities, go as far as seizing radio stations, but would make nothing of it : the self-organisation of proletarians « is possible, but at the same time, they have nothing to organise » (Théorie communiste, n° 4, 1981, p. 21).

In the light of hindsight, they look sane while others appear mad, however, for the questions they posed were so simple and practical that it is a wonder no one else did. Why, if communism is simply the self-organization of the workers, did the workers not simply seize what was ready to hand? Why the indifference to the practical affairs of revolution:

The leaflet Que faire ?, about 100,000 copies of which were republished and distributed, recommended what the movement needed to do to go further, or even just continue : take a number of simple measures which broke with capitalist logic, in order that the strike could show its capacity to make society function differently; meet social needs (which would rally the hesitant and the middle class who were worried by the violence – the product of a deadlock, an impotent reaction in the face of an impasse) through free provision of transport, health care, food, through the collective management of distribution centres, through striking against payments (rent, taxes, bills); and show that the bourgeoisie and the state are useless.

Communism was only present in 1968 as a vision. Even the workers hostile to the trade unions didn’t take the next step, the revolutionary elements among them being the exception rather than the rule. An additional proof of weakness was the confusion surrounding the rally at Charléty at the end of May. Charléty was a political attempt to go further, through an extension of the social movement at the level of state power. Charléty was where many of the leftists were to be found, but also the left of the trade unions (in particular the CFDT), and where we also saw a celebrity who people had recently wanted to make a national hero, the De Gaulle of the left : Mendès-France. Charléty was the peak of the consciousness and political realism which the « May movement » gave evidence of. On one side, the dream : councils. On the other, the reality : a real reforming government, where many saw themselves playing the role of Lenin to this Mendès-Kerensky. We can smile about it today, but if the Mendès solution had carried the day, many protestors would have supported it. One year later, two young workers who produced a leaflet with La Vieille Taupe recalling the revolutionary scope of May 68, stated : « We will not forget Charléty ». . . In 1981, the election of a Socialist President, Mitterand, would finally realise the hopes of Charléty.”

Again, they are asking questions others simply would not. It is also the case that, in my view, the writers involved with the communization tendency had not fully developed their understanding of this “implicit pact.” They saw it, they recognized it, they noted some of its implications for theory, but they had by no means fully worked out those implications, much less worked them up into a convincing argument. In fact, it’s my view that it has only been in the 2000s and 2010s that such an argument has emerged, in the second period of the theory of communization. But the reason for this continuity indicates a continuity in the real world, in history as much as in theory. There is no solution in theory that isn’t also a solution, in practice, at least any solution that matters.  Communization returns as a thematic, does not simply go away with the 1970s, because the problematic this current identified in 1968 continues to reimpose itself with every subsequent struggle, thus inviting an attempt to formulate anew a better response.

In the document I just quoted, “Re-collecting our past,” by the collective La Banquise, which included Dauve but also offered a critique of the articles he had written for Mouvement Communiste (which we know as Eclipse and Reemergence) the problematic is phrased as a curious blend of acceptance and refusal:

In the will to go on mass strike there lay a refusal; in the manner of conducting that strike, and in particular of abandoning it to the trade unions, only in order to rebel   against them at the end when they had scuppered it, there lay an acceptance.

I recognize this blend of acceptance and refusal in most significant struggles of the 50 years since, upending our notions of reform, insurrection, social movement, and revolution. This post can’t possibly summarize the full answer to this problematic—that’s for another day, or a formal essay—and by all means there is still much that remains unanswered in the global 68, much that can only be answered with the practical overcoming of the impasses such a moment leaves.

It’s intriguing to me, though, and I need to know a little more about the entanglement of these groups to say much, that La Banquise quote Theorie Communiste from 1981, right before they attempt to explain the mystery that 68 presented. This is significant because it is TC, in developing an articulation distinct from Gilles Dauve, that in my view begins to work through a possible response to this conundrum, though most of essays that best do so are from the 2000s or later.

All the current problems of the apprehension of the revolution, which one finds to a greater or lesser extent in all the theorisations that are made, stem from the fact that the proletariat can no longer oppose Capital with what is within the capitalist mode of production, or rather, can no longer make the revolution the triumph of that which exists . . . (Théorie Communiste, n° 4, 1981, p. 37)

It it a gnomic formulation, and Theorie Communiste will hardly become clearer as they improve upon it. But if we want to pass into the open plain, we will have to cross those Alps. I leave that for another post.

Part 3: Dec 27, 2020


Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationist International and the theory of communization: part three of a series

As noted, the theory of communization that Gilles Dauvé and others developed offers a critique of the ultraleft (which here refers in the main to council communism) by way of the ideas of Amadeo Bordiga. I’ve described this as a synthesis, the production of a new theory of revolution. This synthesis could not have taken place without the presence of a crucial catalyst, the Situationist International.

But first, some background narrative. The confrontation between Bordiga and council communism described above was made possible by an international revival of ultraleft ideas initiated, in part, by defectors from Trotsky’s Fourth International right after the end of the war. In France, the group Socialisme ou Barbarie, in the United States, the circle around CLR James’s Johnson-Forrest Tendency, and in Italy, the writers later associated with operaismo, corresponded during the 1950s and 1960s, repudiating Trotsky’s account of the USSR—they largely converged around a “state capitalism” thesis—and placing special emphasis on spontaneity and workers’ self-activity.

The triumph of capital during this period, of Taft-Harley and the Marshall Plan, looks more total to us than it was experienced then. In Europe, communist partisans essential to the Allied victory exited the war in control of France, Greece, Italy, and Belgium, with massive strikes and other workers’ actions on the upswing.  Revolt in East Germany in 1951 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, alongside lesser developments in Poland, convinced ex-Trotskyists, council communists, and others that a wave of class struggle traversing the Cold War division of east from west might soon upset the American century. The publication of Kruschev’s secret speech, also in 1956, accelerated defections from various communist parties around the world, some of whom went looking for heterodox Marxism that could explain the defeat from within they had suffered.

Socialisme ou Barbarie (hereafter S. ou B.) gathered many of these dissidents together around the ex-Trotskyist Cornelius Castoriadis, who had come to Trotskyism during the Greek Civil War, and Claude Lefort, an associate of Merleau Ponty and writer for Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes. In arguing that the USSR was state capitalist, Castoriadis placed special emphasis on the dimension of control, management, and execution, developing a theory of capital-as-power that could describe both French capitalism and nominal socialism in the USSR and elsewhere. S. ou B. was influenced by CLR James’ Johnson-Forest tendency, and particularly the analysis of the workplace this group was producing in texts like The American Worker, which combined auto worker Phil Singer’s reflections on the labor process with analysis from Grace Lee Boggs, and which inspired S. ou B.’s turn to the practice of worker writing and workers’ inquiry. Such a turn was already anticipated, though, by Claude Lefort’s emphasis on proletarian experience in the debates he had conducted with Sartre and others at Les Temps Modernes in the 1940s. To this rich conjuncture came a core of factory workers in a few plants, ex-Bordigists, council communists, and many young intellectuals including Jean-Francois Lyotard, Gerard Genette, Edgar Morin, and Hubert Damisch.

Like twins suns acting upon a host of comets, Lefort and Castoriadis would force two exits from the organization that demonstrate the contradictions within the group, and likewise the impasses to which the theory of communization responds. As S. ou B. developed its critique, it engaged Anton Pannekoek and council communism in a way that would bring Lefort and some others within the organization to adopt a more or less council communist position, resisting the residual vanguardism of Castoriadis, who still imagined the organization might play an interventionist role. The Algerian war and coup d’état of 1958 brought these organizational differences to a head, and Lefort left with Henri Simon to form Informations et correspondance ouvrières, taking with them the complicated theory and practice of workers’ inquiry as well as most of their connection to factory organizations. ICO was rigorously anti-vanguardist, concluding that the only valid role for a theoretical organization was as an inter-syndical apparatus for workers to communicate about and theorize their experience.

This exit to council communism in 1958 was followed by the influx of new members into S. ou B., and a new journal Pouvoir Ouvrier, free to engage more freely with existing struggles. This group around PO was the version of S. ou B. that Guy Debord joined briefly in 1960, and left, with a parting critique that suggested the group remained traversed by divisions, between “stars” and “spectators,” that looked similar to the divisions between order-givers (dirigeants) and order-takers (exécutants) that Castoriadis had been theorizing. A new organization was needed, and Debord was already working on that elsewhere. Eventually Castoriadis’s egoism and his incapacity for true collective work led most of those around Pouvoir Ouvrier to found a new group, which brought with it the burden of all these critiques, and whose members would eventually, after 1968, join some of the small collectives developing the theory of communization.

To summarize, S. ou B. featured a departure to council communism and another to interventionism and between them a swerve, which was Debord’s critique of the militant. Debord, in other words, provided the missing element, the element necessary to overcome the contradictions internal to S. ou. B.  Debord therefore, in our story, is not the locus of the reconstituted critique but merely a catalyst for it. This is because the Situationist International itself never resolved its relationship to council communism or articulated the role it envisioned councils playing in revolution. The factory occupations of May ‘68 were, in this sense, both the realization and neutralization of the political project of the SI—the workers brought the economy to a standstill, but they did not behave as the theory of council communism expected; their motives and desires were elsewhere.

The missing element that Debord brings is of course the artistic critique, the heritage of Dada and Surrealism, Rimbaud and Lautreamont, and the entire project of the historical avant-garde, which Debord both submitted to merciless critique and, in a manner of sorts, brought to completion. When Debord and his peers began in the 1950s, their activities were well-circumscribed by the domain of culture—they were communists as the Surrealists and the Dadaists were, but their activity was not directly anticapitalist except by analogy. Like the earlier avant-gardes, their overcoming of the separation of art from life was not yet an overcoming of the separation of art from political effectivity, but rather a passage into ethics and psychology on the one hand, and architectural fantasy on the other. It was only once Debord decoupled the group from any type of cultural production that the SI was able to play its ultimate historical role. This critique of art gave Debord a unique window into the problems facing S. ou B. Viewing the tyranny of both the workplace and the political vanguard through the lens of the critique of the division of labor Debord had developed with respect to art, he could go much further than Castoriadis in a critique of bureaucracy, management, and control.

Neither is Debord, however, siding with Claude Lefort and his departed associates, as he emphasizes in his letter. If Debord locates in the self-organizing actions of workers a capacity for creative problem-solving independent of their representation by intellectuals and bureaucrats, he never imagines that this means intellectuals must quiet themselves. As Dauvé notes later on, this is one thing Debord got absolutely right. He simply assumed that, as a condition of revolution, the workers and the intellectuals would eventually join together, in advance of which anxiety by intellectuals served no purpose. Perhaps Debord’s creativity as a writer and filmmaker lead him to fear less that his ideas might bully the workers into submission.

Despite all this the SI never really overcomes the limits of the ultraleft as Dauve defines it. As Dauve notes, those who joined the group towards the end of the 1960s adopted a theory of the council as revolutionary instrument that is left more or less unconfronted with the group’s implicit worker’s anthropology. On the one hand, in many texts the SI establishes the revolutionary proletariat as a group whose many-sided needs and desire bring it into fundamental conflict with the capitalist mode of production and the workers’ movement. On the other hand, they imagine a more or less classically councilist passage to revolution, in which the need for a party is sidestepped by the direct seizure of the means of production by the workers’ themselves, who can then presumably figure out how to manage their affairs. But if the factory and office, the mine and the field, are places that the proletariat instinctively refuses how then imagine them as managers there of their own suffering. Where, then, is the aesthetic critique of the barren one-sidedness of everyday life in capitalism? Surely the requirements of revolution mean more than a workers’ council electing itself owner and hanging some cheerful bunting across the shop floor?

Debord and the SI therefore implicitly posed the question of content, but left it for the revolution to explicitly do so. Perhaps this is in keeping with Debord’s unique way of thinking about the avant-garde. He envisions the SI as an adventurist group but not a vanguard. Its goal is to provoke, unsettle, unmask, at which point whatever it has to contribute will have been generalized. As he writes, in the soundtrack to his elegiac reflection on the SI, In girum imus nocte et consumimumr igni, “Avant-gardes have only one time, their goal is to enliven their time without outliving it.” With this idea or the avant-garde, he sides neither with Lefort nor with Castoriadis—the SI is a catalyst, a form of avant-garde action that catalyzes proletarian self-organization, thus obviating the worries about party domination that obsessed S. ou B.

I mean the metaphor of catalyst here rather explicitly. A catalyst is an element required for a chemical reaction of which no trace can be found in the completed product. The product here is the theory of communization, the critique of the ultraleft that Dauvé effected by means of Bordiga. Note that in that original Dauvé text, “Sur l’ideologie ultra-gauche,” from 1969, the SI is not mentioned.  But it remains essential nonetheless, as Dauvé will acknowledges in his later articles. For it is the emphasis we find in the SI on everyday life as a site of suffering, and on creative expression as both proletarian weapon and general good, that shows up the failings of Bordiga’s “barracks-communism.”* Bordiga may point out that the council communists leave the content of communism undetermined in a way that implicates the Situationist International, but nonetheless the aesthetic critique of capitalism they develop offers a surer sense of the consistency of that content than Bordiga does.

*: kasernenkommunismus, “barracks communism,” is the term Marx coins to critique the militaristic, forced collectivism of Sergey Nechaev during the split in the First International.

Further Reading

1) On S. ou B. , see a) Marcel Van Der Linden, “Socialisme ou Barbarie: A French Revolutionary Group (1949-1965),” Left History 5.1 (1977), b) Stephen Hastings-King, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialism ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing (Haymarket 2015

2) On workers’ inquiry, S. ou B. , JFT, and the Italian experience, see the invaluable third issue of Viewpoint:

3) On Debord’s connection to S. ou B., see Anthony Hayes, “The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Workers’ Movement”

4) Gilles Dauvé spells much of this out in Critique of the Situationist International; see also the passages on the SI, in Roland Simon, Histoire critique de l’ultragauche, which is the best general history available.

part 4: Jan 2, 2021

Communism Is an Open Book

Jan Appel and the history of council communism

So far I may have seemed to treat all the component elements of the communization cocktail as roughly equivalent—one part Bordiga, one part council communism, shaken with the ice of the Situationist International, strained, then served in a bottle, with a flaming rag. It’s not like that, not in my view. Bordiga, who fascinates me endlessly, remains a vexing figure, troubling in most of his core essays, and with a fundamental orientation that is dogmatic, even idealist, and moreover dependent upon an entirely unworkable anthropology (though I commend him for placing anthropology front and center). If I might continue my extended chemistry metaphor, Bordiga is some kind of caustic element whose most useful properties emerge only in combination with other materials. Council communism, by comparison, is a rich and surprisingly resilient metal—one can see the difference immediately in the fact that, unlike most other tendencies, council communism is not identifiable, either implicitly or explicitly, with an individual. The central contention of this tendency, and the broader Dutch-German communist left, was that the workers themselves could do it, would do it, in some places already had, only to be betrayed by the institutions and leaders of the workers’ movement. The “council,” the soviet, thrust to the front of history by the 1905 Russian Revolution, is an emblem of this capacity for creative self-organization, both a theory and a practice all in one. You didn’t need a Trotsky.

1917 Petrograd soviet

As practice, rather than ideology, council communism is communism as it really might have been in the twentieth century—the pure product of the workers’ movement, its theoretical summa. I do not believe, as sometimes seems implied by Dauvé, that this tendency was doomed to failure due to its theoretical errors, in part because the tendency can’t be so easily subsumed by its theory. Given the emphasis on self-organization, these groups had a capacity for internal self-critique that means some mistakes could perhaps have been overcome, given revolutionary conditions, through the lesson of practice. I do not think that Dauvé is correct (except perhaps in spirit) when he says, of the council communist theory of socialist distribution through labor-time accounting that it would simply amount “to the rule of value . . . without the intervention of money” or (even worse) that “it retains all the categories and characteristics of capitalism: wage-labor, law of value, exchange” such that it could be described as “capitalism, democratically managed by the workers.” This is a distortion both of the councilist theory as it was elaborated and Marx’s theory of value, and while I sympathize with the (misdirected) thrust of the critique, as I do believe these early proposals deserve critique, Dauvé makes a bit of a mess of it. [In another, more formal essay, I will approach all of this material from the standpoint of value, but I must repress all those tangents here!]

The sentences just quoted are from his revision of the 1969 text, “Sur l’ideologie ultra-gauche,” that I discussed in my first entry. This essay becomes, in Fredy Perlman’s Black and Red translation, “Lenin and the Ultra-left.” But the story does not end there, for Dauvé has continued reworking precisely these very passages and, in the updated version, published by PM in 2015, this chapter has split into two parts, with the newly birthed chapter focusing only on the question of value and communism, first in Marx, and then in council communism (the old version is not available online, the new is here, and see the author’s note for textual history). In the new text, Dauvé puts front and center what is the central council communist text on the matter, Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution (the Grundprinzipien)published by the Dutch Group of International Communists in 1930, and elaborated on by Paul Mattick. In this second piece, Dauvé is more circumspect, admitting that the GIK’s attempt to demonstrate how assorted workers’ councils might together administer the expropriated means of production after revolution “goes a long way” toward envisioning “moneyless utopia” but he nonetheless offers a version of the earlier statement, and concludes that “such a scheme goes as close as one can get to keeping the essentials of capitalism yet putting them under full worker control.”

1930 version of the GIK text

In the second version, Dauvé also rightly links the GIK proposal to Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,” which proposed the use of “certificates” to distribute social wealth among the freely associated producers. These certificates would not be money or money wages in a strict sense (they would not fulfill all the roles of money)—they would not circulate, and they would not be used to distribute raw materials or partly finished products. Each worker would receive a certificate saying they have performed a certain amount of work (in hours, or days) and that would then allow them to draw a given magnitude of commodities (also measured in hours or days) from the stores of social wealth. Every worker would consume the same “magnitude” of wealth—measured by the hour—though they would certainly not produce the same amount of wealth every hour. And some would not produce any, since wealth would need to be set aside for nonproducing members of society, as well as for reproduction and other structural costs. Marx is quite clear that this arrangement—which Dauvé now calls a “value without money”— is the best of bad worlds, in his view, a kind of unfair fairness, as there is simply no way to produce real justice through numerical equality: it always introduces another inequality. Unlike the social reformers whose monetary reforms were designed to fix structural problems, Marx’s scheme only works to the extent that revolutionaries have already entirely reorganized the economy, so that such certificates are a temporary stopgap, used only inasmuch as the “birth-defects” of communism remain.

The Grundrinzipien takes the cue from Marx and includes a clever mechanism whereby these defects might be overcome, one that Dauvé doesn’t comment on, and which is worth highlighting. The authors recognize that a certain portion of social wealth must be set aside, as we have said, for those who can’t or won’t work, for administrative purposes, and for any expansion desired, if desired. It is not possible to return to workers precisely the number of hours they contribute on average, as some portion of goods will always need to be a free gift. For example, in the GIK scheme, those who work in the unit which takes care of bookkeeping and other administrative matters would be paid in labor certificates but that service would not be, in turn, “paid for” with labor certificates. The costs of that service would instead be automatically deducted from every producers’ contribution. Where the Grundprinzipien is clever is that they imagine that more and more of the economy might be transformed into units like the bookkeeping office—General Service Units—whose products are unpriced and therefore distributed free of charge. The idea (see Mandel for a fuller exposition) is that once marginal demand reaches zero as a function of supply, one can essentially stop pricing goods. As productivity increases, then, more and more of the fruits of the economy would be distributable on demand, without metering. This makes the GIK proposal more plausible, in my view, and indicates that there may be or more likely may have been situations where, given the existing productive potentials, a proletarian revolution could quickly pass to full communism using labor certificates for some portion of people’s needs and wants. Imagine, for example, if food and housing were guaranteed but the rest of people’s needs and desires were certificated.

In such a state of affairs, what would matter is not the presence or absence of certificates, but the presence or absence of compulsion. There is a big difference between using certificates to portion consumption, and using them to force people to work. This need for compulsion is implicit within the GIK proposal, but unexamined, and even leads them to introduce consumption differentials for skill. It’s also where the whole thing falls apart, as even Paul Mattick admits in the introduction he writes when the book is finally published in English in the 1970s.

This is further evidence of the flexibility of council communism. Dauvé means to address his critique of the ultraleft to Mattick and focuses on the issue of labor-time accounting, but by 1970 Mattick found the argument for labor-time distribution badly made. This is a significant departure, as he had earlier been one of the main advocates, translating parts of the Grundprinzipien into English and offering an adapted version of its argument in his 1934 text, “What is Communism?” By 1970, however, it seemed to Mattick that in most industrialized countries the productive forces were so highly developed that labor-time distribution was no longer necessary: one could go to free access full communism right away. But even in the event that this wasn’t possible, if perhaps the productive forces had been partially destroyed during the revolution and scarcity remains a problem, Mattick points out, rather devastatingly, that freely associated producers could just choose to ration without calculating labor-time and without necessarily compelling each other to work, demonstrating that what’s at stake is power and political decision not arithmetic. The compulsion to work is, technically, and as a political matter, separate from the portioning of the proceeds of labor, and it is only in the ideology of the labor certificate that these two become confused.

Mattick writes the preface nonetheless, using the criticisms of the Grundprinzipien he offers to demonstrate the flexibility of the council concept and concluding that, in the GIK text, “we are not presented with a finished program, but with an initial attempt to approach the problem of communist production and distribution.” He reads it as “a historical document which sheds light upon a stage reached in past debate.” Here he concurs with the authors of document, who are insistent in their short 1930 preface that their intention is not to write a “program” but rather to “subject the possibilities projected here to the most thoroughgoing discussion,” after which point the organization intends to issue a final expression of its standpoint.

Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960), lecturing in astronomy.

This emphasis on the development of self-organizing principle rather than the elucidation of programmatic demand is the most remarkable thing about the document, and deserves to be separated from the question of the certificate. Or rather, we might note that the labor-time distribution and calculation aims to serve two roles, only one of which is inimical to communism. On the one hand, the certificate is a form of power, of compulsion. But it is also a way of making a complicated labor process transparent. This emphasis on transparency and intelligibility is the most remarkable part of this text, and council communism in general, and deserves to be thought independent of the recommendation to certificate. As they write, “the simple language and the clear methods of analysis employed, which are understandable to every class-conscious worker, ensure that every revolutionary who diligently studies the following pages can also fully grasp their content. The clarity and disciplined objectivity of the writing likewise open up the possibility of a broad arena of discussion within the working class movement, one which can draw into its orbit all the varied schools of opinion represented within its ranks.” Anton Pannekoek writes beautifully on this theme, and the possibility for freedom and collective self-consciousness it allows:

As a plain and intelligible numerical image the process of production is laid open to everybody’s views. Here mankind views and controls its own life. What the workers and their councils devise and plan in organized collaboration is shown in character and results in the figures of bookkeeping. Only because they are perpetually before the eyes of every worker the direction of social production by the producers themselves is rendered possible.

Pannekoek is picking up on a theme that is central to Marx’s critique of political economy. In the riddling passages on the commodity from Capital, Marx elucidates the mystifications of the commodity form by presenting us with its opposite: “Let us imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the mean of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” The self-awareness part is crucial—for Marx, the important part of communism is that “The social relations of the individual producers, both towards their labour and the products of their labour, are here transparent in their simplicity, in production as well as in distribution.” There is no commodity fetishism.   

It is not surprising that the Dutch-German communist left hit upon this theme—given that its central contention, developed against the Bolshevizing communist parties of Germany, was that proletarian self-organization was sufficient for revolution. The theory of transparency is a necessary corollary, one piece of evidence for which is that many council communists were highly involved in the Esperanto movement, imagining universal language a necessary concomitant of workers’ self-organization and self-management. Nonetheless, the singular focus on transparency in accounting measures appears to be due to a single person, Jan Appel, who embodied in his biography the council communist theory of proletarian self-organization and creativity. Another tradition would likely have put Appel’s name on the Grundprinzipien, for he was its primary author, in fact responsible for convincing Pannekoek that bookkeeping transparency was an important matter and not a trivial one.

Jan Appel (1890-1985)

Working in a Hamburg naval shipyard when the 1918 revolution broke out and ended World War I, Appel joined the revolutionary shop stewards movement and stormed an army barracks during the January 1919 Spartacist rising. He joined the anti-parliamentary and anti-union KAPD, which applied for membership to the Comintern along with its rival group, the KPD. Sent to Russia to represent the KAPD and to inform the Comintern of the KPD’s traitorous behavior during the Ruhr uprising, Appel stowed away on a friend’s boat, then helped to hijack it, navigating unaided through the Arctic to Murmamsk, and from there by train to Petrograd. He was received by Lenin himself who, after listening to the “comrade-pirates,” as he called them, produced a pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, that he had just written with such people in mind. Appel returned to Germany and underground work, but he was eventually apprehended and forced to serve prison time. It was during this sentence that he reflected on his experience, engaging in a deep study of Marx (and perhaps the passage above) and writing portions of the text which would become the Grundprinzipien, after a four-year period in which Appel discussed it with those involved in the Dutch Group of International Communists (GIK).

The book, he tells us, is direct product of these defeats—of his betrayal in the Ruhr, his reception in Russia by the Bolsheviks. What he thought was necessary was to show other workers that it could be done, that it wasn’t that complicated—this was a document designed to serve a particular purpose among the KAPD-affiliated Unionen (factory groups) that were on the verge of being swept away by history. When council communism is revived by S. ou B. and the ICO, the question of how to distribute proceeds was by no means settled, and as we see a perspective close to communization was easily arrived at by Mattick. It’s worth noting, too, that all of these groups had a variety of views with regard to the relationship between councils and political organizations—some, including Appel and Mattick, imagined a role for something like a party. The dividing line between communization and council communism then becomes harder to distinguish, especially if we imagine the council to apply not only to workplace organizations, but other kinds of self-organizing structures, as Mattick indicates in his introduction. The soviet, or council, is of course a historically specific tactical form —one that becomes both tactic and strategy—but part of a longer history of constituent assemblies and other organizational structures. The will to form an assembly, to take things over and to run them directly, is in some sense fundamental to emancipatory politics. It is not likely to go away, thankfully. Jan Appel’s lesson to us is less about the necessity labour time calculation than a reminder to the revolutionaries of today that they should steal the boat and write their own book.

A crater on the far side of the moon named for Pannekoek: