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What is Anarchist Communism?

category international | the left | feature author Monday January 21, 2008 17:21author by Wayne Price - (NEFAC) personal opinionauthor email drwdprice at aol dot com Report this post to the editors

A 2-part study of Anarchist Communism

The contradictory meanings of "communism:" both as a society of freedom and as one of totalitarianism. What Bakuknin, Kropotkin, and Marx had meant by communism and how this term was changed by the Leninists.

There was a vision, called “communism,” which was held by Kropotkin and other anarchist-communists in the 19th and early 20th century. Marx and Engels shared essentially the same goal. In the stateless, classless, society of communism, the means of production would be held in common (by the community), work would be carried out due to social motives rather than for wages, and consumer goods would be available to all according to their needs.

But during the Cold War, “communism” came to mean something entirely different. Great nations were ruled by self-named Communist Parties. Their economies were managed by totalitarian states, their powerless workers produced commodities sold on the internal and international market, and they worked for wages (that is, they sold their labor power as commodities to their bosses).

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Part 2: It is Not the Label but the Content Which Matters

What is Anarchist Communism?

Part 1
The contradictory meanings of Communism

There was a vision, called “communism,” which was held by Kropotkin and other anarchist-communists in the 19th and early 20th century. Marx and Engels shared essentially the same goal. In the stateless, classless, society of communism, the means of production would be held in common (by the community), work would be carried out due to social motives rather than for wages, and consumer goods would be available to all according to their needs.

But during the Cold War, “communism” came to mean something entirely different. Great nations were ruled by self-named Communist Parties. Their economies were managed by totalitarian states, their powerless workers produced commodities sold on the internal and international market, and they worked for wages (that is, they sold their labor power as commodities to their bosses).

In that era, “Communists” were mostly people who supported those types of state-capitalist tyrannies. They included pro-Moscow Communist Parties, Maoists, other Stalinists, and most Trotskyists. They called themselves “Communists,” and so did most of their opponents. On the other hand, “anti-Communists” were not simply those who opposed such regimes but those who supported Western imperialism—a group ranging from liberals to deranged fascists. At the same time, the pro-Moscow types denounced libertarian socialists as “anti-Communist” as well as “anti-Soviet.” Some people took to calling themselves “anti-anti-Communists,” as a way of saying that they did not endorse the Communists but were against the McCarthyite witchhunt.

Now we are in a new period. The Soviet Union has collapsed, with its ruling Communist Party. True, such states still exist, with modifications, in China, Cuba, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, they inspire many people. But overall, the number and weight of Communist Parties have diminished.. In contrast, there has been an upswing in the number of people who identify with anarchism, with its mainstream in the anarchist-communist tradition. Other people remain impressed by Marx, but look to libertarian and humanistic interpretations of his work. How then shall we use the term “communism” today? Is its meaning the same as in earlier periods? I will review the history of the term and of its meanings.

While calling themselves “socialists,” the founders of the anarchist movement, Proudhon and Bakunin, denounced “communism.” A typical statement by Proudhon is that communism is a “dictatorial, authoritarian, doctrinaire system [which] starts from the axiom that the individual is subordinate…to the collectivity; the citizen belongs to the State …” (quoted in Buber, 1958; pp. 30-31). Bakunin wrote, “I detest communism because it is the negation of liberty….I am not a communist because communism… necessarily ends with the concentration of property in the hands of the state” (quoted in Leier, 2006; p. 191). Proudhon called himself a “mutualist;” Bakunin, a “collectivist.”

If we think of a monastery, or of an army (where the soldiers are all given their food, clothing, and shelter), it is easy to see how “communism” (of a sort) can be imagined as inconsistent with democracy, freedom, and equality. In his early writings, Marx denounced the program of “crude communism” in which “the community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by…the community as universal capitalist” (Marx, 1961; pp. 125-126). However, Marx and Engels did call themselves communists, a term they preferred to the vaguer “socialist,” although they used this also. (They especially disliked the term “social democratic,” used by the German Marxists.)

Marx’s concept of communism is most clearly explained in his “Critique of the Gotha Program.” Communism would be “the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production…” (Marx, 1974; p. 345). In “the first phase of communist society,” (p. 347) there will remain scarcity and the need for labor. “We are dealing here with a communist society…as it emerges from capitalist society…still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society…” (p. 346). In this lower phase of communism, Marx speculated, individuals would get certificates stating how much labor they had contributed (minus an amount taken for the common fund). Using their certificates, they can take means of consumption which used up the same amount of labor; this is not money because it cannot be accumulated. However, it is still a system of bourgeois rights and equality, in which equal units of labor are exchanged. Given that people have unequal abilities and unequal needs, this equality still results in a certain degree of inequality.

Marx trumpeted, “In a more advanced stage of communist society, when the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labor, and thereby the antithesis between intellectual and physical labor, have disappeared; when labor is no longer just a means of keeping alive but has itself become a vital need; when the all-around development of individuals has also increased their productive powers and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can society wholly cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right and inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!” (p. 347)

(For reasons known only to himself, Lenin re-labeled Marx’s “first phase of communist society” as socialism, and the “more advanced stage of communist society” as communism. Most of the left has followed this confusing usage.)

Despite his rejection of the term communism, Bakunin also advocated a two-phase development of the post-revolution economy, according to his close friend James Guillame. Guillame wrote an essay in 1874, summarizing Bakunin’s views. “We should…be guided by the principle, From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. When, thanks to the progress of scientific industry and agriculture, production comes to outstrip consumption, and this will be attained some years after the Revolution, it will no longer be necessary to stingily dole out each worker’s share of goods. Everyone will draw what he needs from the abundant social reserve of commodities….In the meantime, each community will decide for itself during the transition period the method they deem best for the distribution of the products of associated labor.” (in Bakunin, 1980; p. 361-362) He mentions various alternate systems of remuneration for the transitional period; “…systems will be experimented with to see how they work out” (p. 361).

Today’s proposals for Parecon (“participatory economics”), in which workers are rewarded for the intensity and duration of their labor in a cooperative economy, would fit into Bakunin’s or Marx’s concept of a transitory, beginning, phase, of a free society. But unlike the Pareconists, Marx and Bakunin recognized that this was still limited. For both Marx and Bakunin, then, full communism requires a very high level of productivity and potential prosperity, a post-scarcity economy, when there is plenty of leisure time for people to participate in decision-making, at work and in the community, ending the distinction between order-givers and order-takers. However, neither Marx nor Bakunin described a social mechanism for moving from one phase to the other.

Kropotkin rejected the two-phase approach of the Marxists and the anarchist-collectivists. Instead he proposed that a revolutionary society should “transform itself immediately into a communist society,” (1975; p. 98), that is, should go immediately into what Marx had regarded as the “more advanced,” completed, phase of communism. Kropotkin and those who agreed with him called themselves “anarchist-communists” (or “communist anarchists”), although they continued to regard themselves as a part of the broader socialist movement.

It was not possible, Kropotkin argued, to organize an economy partially on capitalist principles and partly on communist principles. To award producers differentially by how much training they have had, or even by how hard they work, would recreate class divisions and the need for a state to oversee everything. Nor is it really possible to decide how much individuals have contributed to a complex, cooperative, system of production, in order to reward them according to their labor.

Instead, Kropotkin proposed that a large city, during a revolution, “could organize itself on the lines of free communism; the city guaranteeing to every inhabitant dwelling, food, and clothing…in exchange for…five hour’s work; and…all those things which would be considered as luxuries might be obtained by everyone if he joins for the other half of the day all sorts of free associations….” (p.p. 118-119) This would require the integration of agricultural with industrial work, and physical with mental labor. There remained an element of coercion in Kropotkin’s proposal. Presumably able-bodied adults who would not contribute five hours of work would not get the “guaranteed” minimum.

Anarchist-communism came to predominate among anarchists, so that it became rare to find an anarchist (except for the individualist anarchists) who did not accept communism, whatever other disagreements they may have had among themselves. Meanwhile the Marxists had long been calling themselves social-democrats. When World War I broke out, the main social democratic parties endorsed their capitalists’ war. Lenin called on the revolutionary wing of international social democracy to split from the traitors to socialism. As part of this, he advocated that his Bolshevik Party and similar parties call themselves Communist Parties, going back to Marx. Some of his followers complained that this would confuse the workers, making the Bolsheviks sound like the anarchist-communists. Lenin declared that it was more important to not be confused with the reformist social democrats. Lenin got his way (as he usually did in his party). The term “communist” had been taken back by the Marxists. With the example of the Russian revolution, most revolutionary-minded people turned to the Leninists; the anarchists became increasingly marginalized. The term “communist” became mostly the label for Leninists.

Part 2, published at the end of next month, will discuss whether anarchist-communism is possible, whether it requires a post-scarcity society, and whether (and when and where) anarchists should call ourselves “communists.”

  • Bakunin, Michael (1980). Bakunin on anarchism. (Sam Dolgoff, ed.). Montreal: Black Rose Books.
  • Buber, Martin (1958). Paths in utopia. Boston: Beacon Hill/Macmillan
  • Kropotkin, Peter (1975). The essential Kropotkin. (E. Capouya & K. Tomkins, eds.). NY: Liveright.
  • Leier, Mark (2006). Bakunin; A biography. NY: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.
  • Marx, Karl (1961). Economic and philosophical manuscripts. In Eric Fromm, Marx’s concept of man. NY: Frederick Ungar.
  • Marx, Karl (1974). The First International and after; Political writings, vol. III. (David Fernbach, ed.). NY: Vintage Books/Random House.

Written for

What is Anarchist Communism, Part 2: It is Not the Label but the Content Which Matters

Wayne Price has written a book, The Abolition of the State; Anarchist and Marxist Perspectives. It can be purchased at AuthorHouse or Amazon.

author by Anarchopublication date Fri Nov 30, 2007 18:09author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I would suggest that Kropotkin was aware that communism could not be implemented immediately in all cases.

Indeed, Kropotkin stressed that anarchists "do not believe that in any country the Revolution will be accomplished at a stroke, in the twinkling of a eye, as some socialists dream." Moreover, "[n]o fallacy more harmful has ever been spread than the fallacy of a 'One-day Revolution.'" (The Conquest of Bread_, p. 81)

In fact he stressed how difficult it would be:

"A political revolution can be accomplished without shaking the foundations of industry, but a revolution where the people lay hands upon property will inevitably paralyse exchange and production . . . This point cannot be too much insisted upon; the reorganisation of industry on a new basis . . . cannot be accomplished in a few days; nor, on the other hand, will people submit to be half starved for years in order to oblige the theorists who uphold the wage system. To tide over the period of stress they will demand what they have always demanded in such cases -- communisation of supplies -- the giving of rations." (pp. 72-3)

As such, being well aware that a revolution would see distribution of goods being based on "no stint or limit to what the community possesses in abundance, but equal sharing and dividing of those commodities which are scare or apt to run short." (p. 76)

As he put it in his essay on "Anarchism", "The Conquest of Bread" aimed at "prov[ing] that communism -- at least partial -- has more chance of being established than collectivism, especially in communes taking the lead . . . [and] tried . . . to indicate how, during a revolutionary period, a large city -- if its inhabitants have accepted the idea -- could organise itself on the lines of free communism." (Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets_, p. 298)

So, I think Kropotkin was a sensible revolutionary and argued that while communism was not always immediately possible, applying communist principles and partial communism was. Malatesta, it should be noted, thought likewise.

So a minor point to a good article.

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author by Steffi - Anarkismopublication date Fri Nov 30, 2007 23:54author address author phone Report this post to the editors


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author by Tom - WSA (personal capaicity)publication date Sat Dec 01, 2007 09:03author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Wayne is incorrect when he says that participatory economics has no concept of an earlier and later stage. (By the way, I'll point out that "parecon" is Michael Albert's term. Robin Hahnel doesn't use it.)

The basic idea of participatory economics, with remuneration for private consumption based on how hard one works, is that this is the early stage, this is society as it emerges from capitalism, when there is still a substantial population opposed to the change, a large population shaped by a competitive individualist society.

Hahnel envisions that after a certain period of time, as people becomre more trustful of social solidarity and cooperation and not having to look out all the time for the knife in the back, they would increasingly provide for consumption through the public goods sector, which are the goods and services carried at social expense. This corresponds to the higher stage of communism.

However, even in this higher stage, scarcity is not gotten beyond for the simple reason it can't be. For any given use of our labor time or our resources, we could have used them for something else. This is why scarcity is inevitable.

But scarcity is not the same thing as deprivation. Deprivation we can get beyond, humanity has the productive capacity to ensure that everyone's basic needs are met. But because scarcity can't be gotten beyond, there will still be a need to measure benefit and cost in social production, even tho the calculus will be more purely social, about public goods. In such an environment we can ease up about what people's work effort has been, but we still need to look at social costs and benefits, to have an effective economy. That's why also we can't get beyond a price system of some sort. But it's use would be in terms of community decision-making and planning. In other words, even if you provide goods and services as a free sector as far as consumption by individuals is concerned, you still have a need for social accounting.

author by Global Dissidentpublication date Sat Dec 01, 2007 10:49author email reid9001 at gmail dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Remember, Marx was the one who kicked us out of the International. He was as much a totalitarian as Lenin was.

author by ajohnstone - Socialist Party of Great Britainpublication date Sat Dec 01, 2007 14:18author email ajsc21755 at blueyonder dot co dot ukauthor address edinburgh , scotlandauthor phone naReport this post to the editors

Indeed Kropotkin went further than Marx such as his denial for the Labour Time Vouchers transition to the abolition of wages and money .

An essay on this can found of a hypothetical meeting of Marx and Kropotkin

Also a useful read would be Rubel's Marx the theoretician of anarchism

And indeed Lenin makes an artificial difference between socialism and communism and even Stalin in 1906 knew there was no difference , see his Socialism or Anarchism article

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author by ajohnstone - socialist party of great britainpublication date Sun Dec 02, 2007 05:21author email ajsc21755 at blueyonder dot co dot ukauthor address author phone naReport this post to the editors

Abundance is not a situation where an infinite amount of every good could be produced . Similarly, scarcity is not the situation which exists in the absence of this impossible abundance. Abundance is a situation where productive resources are sufficient to produce enough wealth to satisfy human needs, while scarcity is a situation where productive resources are insufficient for this purpose. "Unlimited wants " is an abstraction of Capitalism . Needs are indeed finite .

Not all resources are available in sufficient supply to meet all uses for them. Land is an obvious case in point: a piece of land cannot be used at the same time for housing and for farming . Some criteria will indeed have to be developed for deciding what use to put them to .Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” , perhaps . Needs that were most pressing and upon which the satisfaction of others needs were contingent, would take priority over those other needs, high priority end goals would take precedence over low priority end goals where resources common to both are revealed to be in short supply .
Cost benefit analysis is an elaborate skill in capitalism and could be a neutral tool based on a “points system” to evaluate a range of different projects facing society.

Allocation calculations in socialism will not be economic but technical . In socialism calculations will be done directly in physical quantities of real things [calculation in kind ] , in use-values , without any general equivalent unit of calculation ie money and prices

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author by Waynepublication date Fri Dec 07, 2007 04:30author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Global Dissident reminds us that Marx expelled the anarchists from the First International. Therefore, apparently, GD does not think that anarchists can learn anything from Marx. Even if I agreed with the facts (in my opinion, both the Marxists and the Bakuninists acted badly in the First International split), I would not agree with GD's method. We should not be looking for heroes or saints but to improve our theory and practice. As an anarchist, I think that there is a great deal to learn from Marx in this regard.

author by randy - ctc supporterpublication date Sat Dec 08, 2007 00:07author address author phone Report this post to the editors

As a historical footnote, Rudolph Rocker agrees with Wayne (in his book Anarcho Syndicalism) that there was blame to share in the First International split.

Rocker was, of course, no "saint" himself, but i respect his views. (Nationalism and Culture is brilliant.)

author by Griffin - Zabalaza Bookspublication date Tue Feb 05, 2008 06:03author address author phone Report this post to the editors

A PDF pamphlet including both parts of this text is now available from the Zabalaza Books site or directly from the link below:

Yours for freedom,

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author by Red an Black Actionpublication date Wed Feb 06, 2008 15:47author address author phone Report this post to the editors

But the fact that neither side in the split was blameless does not exonerate Marx. The Marx dealt with the divisions in the First International - calumny, packed congresses, use of resources for personal vendettas, the intrigues of Lafargue etc. - was qualitatively different to what Bakunin etal did.

Frankly I don't think we an be relativist about this, and I certainly have to disagree with arguments that set up a radical break between Marx and Lenin. Marx was an authoritarian in his public persona and official writings and interventions during his life. Yes, he had contradictions, but the libertarian notes in Marx were muted or largely unpublished. Perhaps Lenin pruned Marx's work of its libertarian elements (and mpulses also to social democracy), but he was pruning a tree that already existed.

Take a look at the Marx-Engels-Lenin volume on anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism (progress Press) and you will see how Marx and Engels defended hierarchy, coercion, centralisation, the Party.

With all due respect comrade Wayne, you are generally too soft on Marx and Engels. I agree we shouldn't overstate the differences, and we should also acknowledge the influence of - even embrace - Marxist economics. But it won't do to try and exonerate Marx of the whiff of the gulag.

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