Communism Is an Open Book

Jan Appel and the history of council communism

parts 1, 2, 3

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.