The economy of free and associated labor
How Marx characterized the transitional period and its economic laws of motion during the Commune uprising of 1871
On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, (1) we draw attention to a text fragment that Marx wrote at the time. We believe this fragment addresses the reproach that the G.I.C., by emphasizing the economy of the transition period, would have neglected the political aspects of the revolution. This reproach was put forward in the 1930s by the Italian Communist Left in exile around the journal Bilan. The present I.C.C. and the I.G.C.L. repeat this criticism, usually with the juggling of quotations, without responding to the arguments that we advance against it (2). For example, the I.G.C.L. brings forward, “The G.I.C. always puts formal economic measures above the question of political power, which for us is a very dangerous slide into apoliticism“ (3). With its priority for “politics,” the I.G.C.L. wants to give priority to the dictatorship of the proletariat, but it ignores the critical question of what this dictatorship means when – as in the Soviet Union – the workers in the enterprises and workers’ councils are subordinated to state capitalism. The G.I.C. is clear: this is a dictatorship not of but over the proletariat.
Here we will show that the G.I.C. was not alone when it put forward the necessity of an economic dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, of a political dictatorship of the working class imposed mainly on society by its proletarian economic laws of motion. Marx too held this view.
To the Pharisees among us, who are in the habit of recognizing as the word of God only that which is substantiated by quotations from Holy Scripture, I can perhaps reassure them with a reference to the many quotations from Marx and Engels with which the Group of International Communists (G.I.C.) underlaid the Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution. (4) There is, however, a little-known text by Marx in which he speaks very explicitly of “the spontaneous operation of the laws of the social economy of free and associated labor.” During the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx wrote his First Draft of The Civil War in France (5), which contains an interesting fragment that I will connect here with the views of the G.I.C. One may dismiss it as an interpretation after the fact, but after all, the hidden possibilities of history are clarified in its further course.
What follows is the fragment of Marx in italics, interrupted each time by my comments.
Such is the Commune – the political form of the social emancipation, of the liberation of labor from the usurpations (slaveholding) of the monopolists of the means of labor, created by the laborers themselves or forming the gift of nature.
The Commune, later the Councils, are the political forms of organization that the proletarian masses used to accomplish the liberation of labor through the workers’ reappropriation of the means of labor, the actual content of the revolution. Note, those who like to speculate on dichotomous concepts of politics and economics: here the Commune is the political form and the workers taking possession of the means of production is the economic content.
As the State machinery and parliamentarism are not the real life of the ruling classes, but only the organized general organs of their dominion, the political guarantees and forms and expressions of the old order of things, so the Commune is not the social movement of the working class and therefore of a general regeneration of mankind, but the organized means of action.
Marx put the social movement first, the Commune as a means of organization second.
The Commune does not [do] away with the class struggles, through which the working classes strive to [read for] the abolition of all classes and, therefore, of all classes [class rule] (because it does not represent a peculiar interest, it represents the liberation of “labor,” that is the fundamental and natural condition of individual and social life …), but it affords the rational medium in which that class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way.
The class struggle in the transitional period is carried through in the most rational and humane way by the organization of the Commune. Marx, therefore, does not prefer the Terror of the French bourgeois revolution, so dear to all kinds of Lenin adepts.
It could start violent reactions and as violent revolutions. It begins the emancipation of labor – its great goal – by doing away with the unproductive and mischievous work of the State parasites, by cutting away the springs which sacrifice an immense portion of the national produce to the feeding of the State monster on the one side, by doing, on the other, the real work of administration, local and national, for working men’s wages. It begins therefore with an immense saving, with economical reform as well as political transformation.
Marx says goodbye to his idea of the state as a tool in the proletarian liberation struggle and replaces the state with the Commune. Revolution with Marx is not limited to the seizure of political power or a one-time smashing of the state, but it is a whole period of change in which the political power of the working class is organized in the Commune, and if necessary it acts by force.
The Communal organization once firmly established on a national scale, the catastrophes it might still have to undergo, would be sporadic slaveholders’ insurrections, which, while for a moment interrupting the work of peaceful progress, would only accelerate the movement, by putting the sword into the hands of the Social Revolution.
The revolution cannot be limited to Paris. Only when it encompasses all of France the danger of a successful counterrevolution is eliminated. However, the working class remains armed against sporadic attempts at counterrevolution.
The working class knows that they have to pass through different phases of class struggle. They know that the superseding of the economical conditions of the slavery of labor by the conditions of free and associated labor can only be the progressive work of time (that economical transformation), that they require not only a change of distribution, but a new organization of production, or rather the delivery (setting free) of the social forms of production in present organized labor (engendered by present industry), of [read from] the trammels of slavery, of [read from] their present class character, and their harmonious national and international co-ordination.
Wage labor and private ownership of means of production must be replaced by common ownership of means of production, with workers taking collective possession of the means of production. In 1871 Marx – in a situation still dominated by the petty bourgeoisie and manual labor with tools – emphasized that workers could not appropriate industry individually, but only collectively. This further development of the productive forces (both workers and machines) after the suppression of the Commune could no longer develop as a “progressive work of the time,” as “that [aforementioned] economic transformation,” but in the capitalist industrial development after the Franco-Prussian War.
The development Marx envisaged is not simply a change in distribution, as reformism would demand, but a new organization of production – and here Marx improves on himself – that is, the abolition of wage labor by association (existing as a mass concentration of workers in the big industry) and the abolition of capitalist “coordination” of markets through collective planning, with labor emerging directly as the measure.
They know that this work of regeneration will be again and again relented[y] and impeded by the resistance of vested interests and class egotisms. They know that the present “spontaneous action of the natural laws of capital and landed property” can only be superseded by “the spontaneous action of the laws of the social economy of free and associated labor” by a long process of development of new conditions, as was the “spontaneous action of the economic laws of slavery” and the “spontaneous action of the economical laws of serfdom.”
What the G.I.C. some 60 years later calls the “economic laws of motion of communism” (6) is here related by Marx to the economic laws of motion of slavery (of antiquity) and serfdom of the Middle Ages. In German Ideology, Marx and Engels had already described the attempts at self-liberation of slaves (individual escape, revolts), serfs and serfs (individual escape with the hand tools to the towns) with the very readable conclusions on the self-liberation of the working class (7). Significantly, Marx begins the last sentence in the excerpt above with a skeptical “but” before calling on the working class to liberate itself through its “political organization” – i.e., the Commune! Although Marx had already sketched out a society without wage labor and capital in the first volume of Capital in the form of his ‘Robinsonade’, he does not elaborate on this in the context of the Commune. He did, however, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (8), a text kept secret. But further elaboration required the actual movements of the revolutions in Russia, Hungary, and Germany of 1917-1923. The Critique of Gotha Programme was published only after Marx’s death by Engels in a critique of beginning reformism, notably after opposition by the German party leadership. Thereafter the text remained hidden in the annals of Die Neue Zeit. Lenin, in his State and Revolution, quoted from it only what suited his realization of Hilferding’s Generalkartell. It was only the G.I.C. which independently, aided by the experiences of the revolutions of 1917-1923, elaborated as the core of the liberation of labor liberation the “economic laws of the movement of communism.”
It is in the interest of future proletarian revolutions to return to these “weapons of critique” and make them concrete in the overthrow of all social relations with the “critique of weapons.”
Fredo Corvo, March 14, 2021.
1 This text was published before in Dutch language on the occasion of the publication of G.I.C., Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution [in Dutch] as an E-Book: Hoe Marx tijdens de Commune-opstand van 1871 de overgangsperiode en haar economische bewegingswetten karakteriseerde. In German it was published as GIK, “Grundprinzipien“: Back to the future: 1935 und 1871., the second part under subtitle: 1871.
4 G.I.C., Fundamental principles of communist production and distribution. The first translation of the final 1935 edition by G.I.C. For that matter, the G.I.C. had an aversion to clinging to quotations: We “did not hold on to quotations, because they never prove the correctness of a view, but at most can clarify a representation.” Idem (p. 60)