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(en) Ireland, Red & Black Revolution #10, Winter 2005 - What is communism? I (1/2)

Date Sun, 13 Nov 2005 19:56:46 +0200

What's in a word?
What is communism? Well according to the Concise Oxford dictionary, communism is:
"1 a political theory derived from Marx, advocating class war and leading
to a society in which all property is publicly owned and each person is paid
and works according to his or her needs and abilities. 2 (usu. Communism) a the
communistic form of society established in the USSR and elsewhere."
If that was correct then this would be a very short article. However, as
so often, the Concise Oxford is wrong again. In fact the terms
socialism and communism appear in England around the 1820s as
terms adopted by members of the cooperative movement who were
sick of hearing their politics referred to as "Owenism". Originally the
two terms were undifferentiated but by the 1840s communism was
used by revolutionaries to differentiate themselves from reformists
such as J.S.Mill who had adopted socialism to cover an indigestible
mess of reformisms.

By the 1870s the terms had moved from differentiating means to
distinguishing ends. The proper Oxford English Dictionary notes in its

"Forster Diary 11 May in T. W. Reid Life (1888) .... I learn that the
great distinction between communism and socialism is that the latter
believes in payment according to work done and the former does not".

It is this meaning of communism as opposed to socialism that evolved
in the late nineteenth century that this article discusses. Of course its
not that important to get hung up on a name, for many people the
Concise definition of communism being something to do with Marx
and the USSR is the one they know. For us the name of the
post-capitalist society we aim to help construct is a detail, what
matters is the content of the ideas. Nonetheless for the purposes of
this article we need to choose a name so we stick with the historical

You can download, print out and distibute this essay as a PDF file
What is communism


As long as society has been divided into the privileged and the
exploited there has been resistance and that resistance has found voice
and expression in the language of the oppressed seeking to define the
road to their freedom. Communism, however is the product of the rise
of capitalist society and the new conditions of oppression and new
possibilities for freedom it brought. The introduction of capitalism
involved the struggle for power of a new class excluded from the
governance of pre-capitalist agrarian based society and the voice they
found to express and direct that struggle was political economy.
Communism then begins as the other new class, the proletariat or
working class, seeks to find its voice and finding itself in contest with
the emerging capitalist class is forced to take on confront and subvert
the voice of their opponent. Thus communism as a discourse begins
as a response to political economy.
Political Economy

Political economy begins with the work of Adam Smith in the late
17th century. Smith's "Wealth of Nations" was a project of leaving
behind the religious discourse of the previous century's Civil War
where political tendencies couched their class aspirations and
ambitions in the language of theology. To do so he followed the
enlightenment push to create a secular, rational and "scientific"
discourse which attempted to avoid the murderous and indeterminable
controversies of religion by reference to "facts". The aim was to
determine the best course of government action or policy directed to
the end of increasing overall wealth. In order to do this the challenge
was to define a reliable measure of wealth or "value". Given the history
of inflation, currency alone was clearly not viable as a direct measure.
In the end Smith settled for a theory of value based on the amount of
labour embodied in goods produced.

This was the basis of what was to be further developed by subsequent
political economists such as James Mill and David Ricardo as the
"labour theory of value" - that is the theory that the underlying value of
that makes a given amount of grain exchangeable for a given amount
of wrought iron or cloth is determined by the average amount of labour
time necessary for the production of each product. The main question
addressed by Smith's political economy was how changes in the
distribution of wealth affected the rate of growth of the overall wealth
of the nation. The main argument was that those government policies
which, through taxation, re-distributed wealth from the manufacturing
and commerce sectors to the land-owners retarded growth as the latter
group, being unwilling to re-invest the extra income into more
wealth-generating industry, simply frittered it away in excess personal

From the outset political economy was a subject with an agenda,
namely that of defending the interests of the rising manufacturing
classes against those of the dominant land-owning gentry and
aristocracy who had a monopoly on governmental power. At the same
time, through the arguments of political economists like Thomas
Malthus, they argued against the effectiveness of the Poor Relief taxes
the manufacturing bosses had to pay for the feeding of the poor and
unemployed during periods of economic slump and high
unemployment. This latter aspect came particularly to the fore in the
great economic slump that followed the ending of the Napoleonic wars
in 1815 [?] and the struggle around the proposed legalisation of unions
in 1824.
William Thompson

One of the first people to critically engage with political economy and
attempt to turn it around to defend the improvement of the condition
of the working class and rural poor was the scion of an Anglo- Irish
landowning family from West Cork by the name of William
Thompson. Born in 1775 in Cork, the young Thompson had been an
enthusiastic supporter of the enlightenment, republicanism and the
French Revolution. He later became a leading figure in the
Co-operative movement in radical opposition to Robert Owen.

In the 1820s, outraged by the use of political economy by a local
"eminent speaker" to argue the supposed necessity and benefit of the
absolute poverty of the "lower orders" Thompson set about an
investigation into political economy which resulted in his "An Inquiry
into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to
Human Happiness" of 1824. As the lengthy title indicates his attention
was like the political economists also focused on the effects of the
distribution of wealth, however his yardstick for the outcome was the
utilitarian "greatest good for the greatest number" rather than the
overall abstraction of the "wealth of the nation".

He addressed Bentham's three principles governing distribution - the
right to security, the right to the produce of labour and the right to
subsistence. The right to subsistence was the principle of distribution
by need which, in Bentham's reasoning, had to be subordinate to the
right to the produce of labour which recognised the priority of the
producers claim to the product of his or her own labour. Bentham
over-ranked both with the right to security i.e. that the individual's
right to his or her existing property had to be defended from arbitrary
abstraction by society or all medium to long term incentives to
economic activity would be nullified by the possibility of having any
gains taken away in the future.

Thompson's first point of attack was to recognise that under the guise
of the right to security Bentham and the utilitarians were in fact
defending the existing property status quo without any interest into the
legitimacy of how this division of ownership had come about. In
Thompson's native West Cork it was easy to recognise that the
monopoly of land by the Anglo-Irish protestant ascendancy had been
brought about not through thrift, hard work and parsimonious virtue
but by military main force. Further Thompson exposed that
exchanges between the dispossessed and property-monopolising
classes could not be seen as free or equal in any way as the
propertyless had to accept unfair wages for the sale of their labour
under duress of starvation as the alternative. Thompson went on to
analyse the process of exploitation of the wage labourer by their
employers and how the lion's share of the product was appropriated by
the latter as surplus value in an account later adopted by Marx.

From here Thompson moved to posit a system of "free exchange"
where equal access to land and the means of production was
guaranteed to all, but distribution was governed by the right to the
produce of labour taking precedence over the right to subsistence. As
the anarchist historian Max Nettlau noted "[Thompson's] book,
however, discloses his own evolution; having started with a demand
for the full product of labour as well as the regulation of distribution,
he ended up with his own conversion to communism, that is to
unlimited distribution".

That is, having proposed a system based on the right to the full
product of labour he re-examined it compared to a system of equal
distribution by the same utilitarian yardstick that he had used to
dismiss the status quo and found, to his initial surprise that the system
of "free exchange" was inferior to that of unlimited equal distribution.
In examining the hypothetical system of "free exchange" he
discovered its competitive nature - the term "competitive" in fact was
first applied to describe capitalist exchange by him. The evils
Thompson ascribed to the competitive system were not simply ethical
or moral - that the system made each look upon his or her peers as
rivals and means to an end - but also in terms of efficiency - that
competition would encourage people to hide their innovations and
discoveries and that market intelligence would also be kept secret thus
causing waste and inefficiency.

In the year Thompson's "Distribution of Wealth" was published he
spent much time in London engaging in a series of public debates
defending the rights of trade unions against the bourgeois political
economists such as J. S. Mill and also on the way forward for the
workers with Thomas Hodgskin at the newly formed London
Mechanics Institute.
The Thompson vs Hodgskin debate

Thomas Hodgskin was the son of a storekeeper at the naval dockyards
at Chatham Kent and had served in the British navy during the
Napoleonic wars. Expelled from the navy at the end of the war due to
conflict with upper ranks, he became a radical journalist and a fierce
critic of authority and the upper classes. He shared with Thompson
the view that the upper classes monopoly on land and the means of
production allowed them to exploit those compelled by necessity to
sell their labour to them. Where he differed with Thompson was that
he considered the right to the full product of labour freed from
capitalist exploitation to be the ultimate goal of radical reform. In
Hodgskin's vision groups of workers organised as unions, could take
possession of the means of production and exchange their products
amongst each other on a "market" basis. The ensuing debate between
Hodgskin and Thompson resulted in the publication of "Labour
Defended" and "Labour Rewarded" respectively and in many ways
outlined the division between the advocates of socialism and
communism that has continued to run through the radical
anti-capitalist movement to this day.
Hodgskin's eclipse of Thompson

In the end it was Hodgskin's analysis that won out over Thompson's.
Thompson suffered the marginalising effects of his West Cork base,
his early death and his association with the strategy of setting up
experimental communities. In addition his theoretical writings were
too lengthy, challenging and, above all, too expensive for the ordinary
worker to afford. In contrast Hodgskin was concise and skilled in
making his arguments in a language the ordinary worker could both
readily understand and re-use amongst his or her peers. Above all
Hodgskin was "good enough" for the purposes of the nascent trades
union movement. Radical enough to turn the tables on the political
economy of the bosses but avoiding the truly radical total inversion of
the existing order that Thompson's proto-communism called for. With
Hodgskin the trade union agitators could conjure up the vision of a
future society free of the worker's exploitation by the bosses but still
retaining the familiarity of money and exchange. The "natural wage"
undiminished by the exploitative abstractions by the capitalists and

Joseph Dejacque - the revolutionary approach

Just as the crushing defeat and savage repression of republican
revolution in Ireland and Britain pushed Thompson and Hodgskin, the
cooperators and trade unionists to steer their frame of action away
from the society-wide or revolutionary scope, so the fact of the
revolution in France cast all progressive thought into this framework.
However it was also exclusively a statist and authoritarian framework
until Proudhon broke the mould by proposing a society-wide and
revolutionary solution that did away with the state. Despite his
originality in breaking with the statist stranglehold on French radical
thought, Proudhon still retained many reactionary elements in his
outlook. It was his neanderthal stance on the emancipation of women
that provoked a young sympathiser of the new anarchist ideal, Joseph
Dejacque, to first openly break with and attack Proudhon's failings.
But in addition to taking him to task for his opposition to female
emancipation Dejacque also denounced Proudhon's economic critique
of capitalism as inadequate and incomplete. Proudhon's position was
in fact similar to Hodgskin in aiming for the elimination of the
monopolies on land and means of production by the capitalist and
landlord classes, but the retention of the wage, money and exchange
as the means of organising the transmission of goods between
producers. In other words, capitalism without capitalists.

In Dejacque's view this is too conservative. Taking Proudhon's slogan
of "property is theft" to its, as he saw it, logical conclusions Dejacque
denounced as property claims any claim by producers on that part of
what they had produced that was not for their own consumption or
use. In this context he distinguishes between possessions - those
goods you have reasonable exclusive claim over for your own use -
and property claims - where you seek to deny others the use of goods
that you have no use for yourself. Dejacque uses the example of a
shoemaker who can make shoes of his or her own size and to their
personal taste and claim them as their own possessions to use. The
same shoemaker can also make for different sizes of feet and different
tastes or fashions. These latter shoes are not possessions as the
shoemaker is not intending to use them personally. Instead in
claiming them as property he or she is denying their use to others, in
effect holding them hostage until they can be exchanged for other
goods the maker judges to be of enough value to satisfy them.

Dejacque's critique of exchange is couched very much in the language
of justice and injustice coming out of the enlightenment discourse of
the French Revolution. It lacks the fullness of Thompson's more
laboured and wide-ranging critique of capitalist political economy, yet
it integrates the aim of communism into the whole of a revolutionary
and explicitly anti-state and anarchist goal. As such Dejacque is the
first libertarian or anarchist communist. Though Dejacque identified
himself as an anarchist and, through the title of his periodical,
introduced the term libertarian as a synonym for the same, he did not
attach the label communism to his economic ideas.

Marx - a failed synthesis

This label was at the time being used by proponents of the
authoritarian and statist conspiracies Proudhon had struck out against.
Specifically the Communist League which includes at that time the
German radicals Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. The latter producing
the "Communist Manifesto" for the league.

In his studies in the 1840s, Marx had come across the work of both
Thompson and Hodgskin and from their common ground critique of
capitalist exploitation he takes the broad outline of his critique of the
same in "Capital" and other works. However on the issue of the main
contention dividing the two Marx ended up choosing neither one nor
the other. Concentrating most of his effort on elaborating the critique
of capitalist political economy already outline by Thompson and
Hodgskin in the 1820s, Marx wrote remarkably little on the principles
governing post-capitalist society. What little he wrote in the "Critique
of the Gotha Programme" seems an attempt to reconcile the two
opposing principles. On the one hand Marx argues that as society
emerges from capitalism with the expropriation of the land and means
of production from the landowning and capitalist classes, it must
retain the forms of money, the wage and exchange. This, Marx's
"lower phase of communism" (which n.b. is not communist in the
way this term is used in this article) corresponds to Hodgskin's vision
of capitalism without capitalists. Yet on the other hand, Marx sees this
first stage not as an end in itself but only as a transitional stage
towards the "higher phase of communism" corresponding to
Thompson's vision of a society from which wage, money and
exchange have been abolished. Marx's attempt at a synthesis of the
two positions is undeveloped and fails to answer basic questions.
Namely why the first stage is not a sufficient goal in itself, how exactly
does the first stage create the (unspecified) conditions for the second
stage and how and when does the transition from one to the other
actually take place?

These failings in Marx's work are in many ways the flipside about
strengths and originality of the other aspects of his contribution.
Whereas Thompson, Hodgskin and Dejacque approached the problem
of social liberation from the ahistorical starting points of utilitarianism,
radical and enlightenment revolutionary analysis respectively, Marx
brings the perspective of historical development from his Hegelian
background. Whereas the previous three were all acutely aware of the
clashing interests of the labouring and owning classes and the extent
to which the bosses ideologies suited their class interests, it is Marx
that puts forward the theory of the class struggle as the motor of
history. What is original in Marx's "Capital" is not the theory of
exploitation and surplus value which he inherits from Thompson, but
the role of class struggle in limiting the working day and shaping the
introduction of productivity-enhancing technology as a response to
working class resistance to exploitation. This focus on the historical
and contestational dynamics of the process is what gives Marx's work
continuing relevance to theorists today, yet it is accompanied by a lack
of attention to specifics of the goal of a post-capitalist society. Despite
his many contributions, Marx's work on its own represents a
backwards step in comparison to Thompson's work when it comes to
investigating the social relations of a post-capitalist society.
The bourgeoisie strikes back - taking the politics out of Political

By the late nineteenth century, the legal proponents of capitalist
political economy realised they faced huge challenges which
necessitated a major change of direction. Continuing the line of
development of classical political economy was no longer a viable
option for them. Some of the reasons were technical - classical
political economy saw only the production of physical goods as
wealth-producing and had no account of the economics of the service
industry. Other reasons were more historical - in international terms
the classical political economists had been fierce critics of colonialism
and the war in America as policies that taxed the wealth-producing
manufacturing industry but benefited only the then dominant
landowning and aristocratic class. Historically classical political
economy had been the agitational propaganda of a capitalist class
excluded from power. Now, in the late nineteenth century that same
class had now been brought into the governing class through political
reform, and many of them now had an interest and share in the profits
of the "New Imperialism" of the late Victorian era. Most importantly
the capitalist class had never considered that the discourse of political
economy could be taken from them and used to enable the real
wealth-producing class - the working class - to articulate its own
interests and critique of power. To address all these issues a new
generation of apologists of power stepped forward to take the political
out of economics and re-make this "social science" (1) as a technical
tool for market analysis for capitalists.

So anxious was William Jevons, one of the first of these post-classical
economists, to undo the damage of the labour theory of value, that he
claimed that the price of goods and services were set by demand alone,
with no link to the amount of labour involved in their production.
Naturally this extreme position was completely unsustainable in
practice so Jevon's theories were eclipsed by those of Alfred Marshall
who grudgingly admitted labour cost as one of cost factors involved in
determining price. Lest anybody think this position made him any less
of an enemy of socialism than Jevons, Marshall was quick to make his
political perspective clear from the outset, stating his opposition to the
"socialist programme" on the grounds that "the collective ownership
of the means of production would deaden the energies of mankind and
arrest economic progress". It was Marshall who eventually produced
the theory of marginal utility and the supply and demand price curve
diagram that today graces the front of all conventional economics text

The neo-classical economists ditching of the labour theory of value
was only achieved by abandoning the central aim of political economy
- that of finding a measure of value with which to gauge the rate of
growth of the national economy and the impact of government policy
on this growth. Consequently by abandoning the measure of value to
focus on the determination of price alone, the neo-classicists threw
out the baby with the bathwater. Their resulting framework was
indeed useful as a technical tool for capitalists for calculating prices
and investment opportunities, but for overall policy their "marginalist
revolution" was itself of marginal utility.

The need for a theory that addressed "the big picture" led to the
evolution of "macroeconomics" which in turn relegated the
neo-classicists efforts to microeconomics. The problem for
macro-economists remained the same as for the original political
economists, how to get a stable measure of wealth undistorted by
monetary inflation. In the end the measure they have chosen is the
Retail Price Index (in the UK - similar indexes exist by different
names in different countries). This is an index based on a basket of
gods to reflect the consumption of an "average" worker which
additions to reflect utility and housing costs, etc. In other words a
measure of the cost of labour. The RPI is thus the re-introduction of
the labour theory of value as a base measurement of the value of
money. In this and other areas such as development economics honest
commentators have had to admit the practical need to re-introduce a
measure of the value of labour as a base unit of analysis.
The continuing appeal of the labour theory of value

It is worth taking a parenthesis to examine why the valuing of
products by the labour time necessary for their production has lasting
appeal to the extent that our everyday existence in capitalist society
continually reinforces it as a seemingly "natural" measure. Partly this
is because there is a biological basis - any living organism must ensure
that the calories it gains from its activity must at least balance the
calories it burns up in staying alive and active for that same time
period or else it will perish. For a large part of human history, until
relatively recently fro most of us, human economic activity has not
moved that far away from that biological basis. While most economic
activity was in the agricultural production of basic food subsistence
and most of that work measured in physical effort over time, care had
to be taken that the exchange of goods produced in the marginal time
surplus to the production of basic subsistence had to be exchanged for
a similar amount of time value otherwise the eventual outcome would
be lack of food.

Although today we live in a world revolutionised productivity-wise by
capitalism where less than 5% of societies labour goes into basic food
production and we have been in a global food surplus for half a
century, it is no surprise that we have not yet adjusted to a post
calorifically-limited world. Yet the basis of estimating the "going rate"
of time necessary for production of a given good or service is that the
process of production is such that most people are capable of a similar
rate of production. As we will see below, that assumption becomes
less and less tenable as the division of labour increases and production
moves more and more away from basic physical effort and more
towards intellectual problem solving or creative work.

From visionaries to a movement

Although Dejacque had died penniless and isolated in the 1860s,
despairing of any real progress towards libertarian communism being
achieved for centuries, yet by the 1870s the ideas of libertarian
communism were taking root amongst some of the followers of
Bakunin in the First International. Through the French anarchist
brothers Elie and Elisee Reclus, the Swiss militants of the Jura
Federation like James Guillaume and the Italian section of the
International, including Errico Malatesta, Andrea Costa and Carlo
Cafiero - a one time secretary to Marx sent by the latter to Italy to
convert the Italian International to Marxism, he ended instead being
converted to anarchism. During the period of the struggle in the
International between Marx and Bakunin these militants preferred not
to challenge Bakunin over the issue of collectivism. Bakunin's
collectivism defended the right to the full product of labour like
Hodgskin, along with the consequent distribution of products by hours
worked - i.e. the wage - and exchange.

In the wake of the definitive split in the International and Bakunin's
subsequent death, these restraints were lifted. The term "anarchist
communism" first appeared in print in publications of the Swiss
anarchists in 1876 and in the Summer of that year the Florence
Congress of the Italian International resolved to abandon collectivism
and adopt communism as their aim, stating: "We believe that the
necessary complement to the common ownership of the means of
production is the common ownership of the products of labour".
Through the work of the Italian, Swiss, French and individual
militants like the Russian Kropotkin, libertarian communism became
not simply an idea but the aim and goal of European-wide
revolutionary movement.

Yet that movement's clarity of vision in relation to its goal suffered a
weakness of analysis of the progress of the class struggle and the
dynamic that could lead from capitalism to its overthrow.
Consequently the actions of the libertarian communist minority's
militants tended towards voluntarist attempts at insurrection such as
the failed Benevento uprising by the Italians or clandestine armed
action or assassination attempts against representatives of the bosses
or ruling aristocracy. The failure of this "propaganda by the deed" era
of the movement led towards the turn to syndicalism as a way of
re-engaging with the practical class struggles of the mass of workers.
However, despite its many positive effects, this form of re-engagement
with the living process and dynamic of the class struggle brought with
it problems.
Paul Bowman
This article is from the journal Red & Black Revolution
(no 10, Winter 2005) of the Irish anarchist federation WSM
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