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(en) Thrall #24 - What is Anarchist Communism? (http://www.freespeech.org/thrall/)

From Thrall <thrallnet@yahoo.com>
Date Fri, 14 Mar 2003 08:26:51 +0100 (CET)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

What? Anarchist Communism? Surely that?s a
contradiction in terms. Doesn?t communism mean a
draconian police state, and anarchism the destruction
of the state? Surely then the two are incompatible?
Well, this article argues the opposite. A stateless
and voluntary form of communism is an essential
complement to anarchism. I believe anarchism is
impossible without it.

>From my experience in anarchist circles in Aotearoa
all too often many anarchists seem to be stuck in a
simplistic notion that anarchism is just something to
do with forming small collectives of friends (affinity
groups) who have occasional meetings where everybody
sits in circles and tries to be non-authoritarian. If
pressed, most of these anarchists will say anarchism
is something to do with getting rid of authority and
respecting individual liberty. I think we need to
transcend this crude anarchist theory and practice -
and here anarchist communism is very useful. Anarchist
communism gets beyond the liberal notions outlined
above that anarchism is a nice idea of individual
liberty, an idea which is almost inevitably detached
from the struggle of the oppressed. So the purpose of
this article is to outline the basics, in very broad
brush strokes, of anarchist communism and in
particular non-market anarchist communism to an
audience unfamiliar with this type of anarchism. Then
it offers some brief observations on the potential for
an updated anarchist communism today.

Anarchist communism did not appear until the mid 1870s
in Europe. It arose against the backdrop of the rise
of industrial capitalism, with all the exploitation,
alienation, poverty and misery that it created among
workers and peasants; and the rise of an increasingly
powerful and centralised state, which overall served
the interests of the boss or capitalist class.
Anarchist communism grew out of the anarchist
collectivist wing of the First International
Workingmen?s [sic] Association, a wing which was
expelled from the International by Karl Marx and his

Peter Kropotkin, perhaps the most influential
anarchist communist theoretician, claimed that the
real origin of anarchism was in the ?creative,
constructive activity of the masses?. He contended
?Anarchism originated among the people, and it will
preserve is vitality and creative force so long only
as it remains a movement of the people.? The Dielo
Trouda (Workers? Cause) group of exiled Russian
anarchist communists, a group which included Nestor
Makhno - a peasant leader who fought the Bolsheviks
and the Whites after the Russian revolution - wrote in
a similar vein in their Organisational Platform of the
Libertarian Communists (1926) that
?The class struggle created by the enslavement of
workers and their aspirations to liberty gave birth,
in the oppression, to the idea of anarchism: the idea
of the total negation of a social system based on the
principles of classes and the State, and its
replacement by a free non-statist society of workers
under self-management. So anarchism does not derive
from the abstract reflections of an intellectual or a
philosopher, but from the direct struggle of workers
against capitalism, from the needs and necessities of
the workers, from their aspirations to liberty and
     The outstanding anarchist thinkers, Bakunin,
Kropotkin and others, did not invent the idea of
anarchism, but, having discovered it in the masses,
simply helped by the strength of their thought and
knowledge to specify and spread it.?
Thus we see that anarchist communism cannot be viewed
as a nice idea detached from the struggles of the
oppressed. The fortunes of anarchist communism are
intimately related with developments in the class
struggle. Anarchist communists learnt from the content
and form of the struggles of the oppressed. Thus we
tend to find that following the 1871 Paris Commune,
anarchist communists adopted the ?commune? as their
model of a future classless and stateless society; and
after the Russian revolution of 1917 workers?

Anarchist communism is composed of two aspects:
anarchism and communism. To look at anarchism first,
anarchism is the continual forming and reforming of
non-hierarchical voluntary groups, of varying sizes,
to meet peoples needs. In Kropotkin?s words, anarchism
?seeks the most complete development of individuality
combined with the highest development of voluntary
association in all its aspects, in all possible
degrees, for all imaginable aims; [they would]
constantly assume new forms which answer best to the
multiple aspirations of all.?

So anarchism is the continual prevention of the
re-establishment of any authority, any power, any
State; and full and complete freedom for the
individual who, freely and driven by his or her needs
alone, freely bands together with other individuals
into a group; then the freedom of development for the
group which federates with others within the
neighbourhood; then freedom of development for
communities which federate within the region and so
on; until a world without borders is established.

So in place of authoritarian organisations,
non-authoritarian organisations would be formed by
people themselves for the purposes of self-help and
mutual aid. The tendency to this free association even
exists in modern capitalist society - in the form of
people supporting strikes and other forms of working
class solidarity, international railway and postal
networks, even the Red Cross and lifeboat
associations. These voluntary associations are limited
and distorted by capitalism; however, they give us a
glimpse of what free agreement has in store for us if
we establish a stateless society in the future.

The second part of anarchist communism is communism.
Unfortunately, communism is now a dirty word. In the
sense it is used by anarchist communists, it does not
mean a police state, or a barracks style socialism, or
state capitalism (see box); it means a free and
voluntary communism. 

People think economics has something to do with
bosses, accountants, economists, money, the market,
profits, production, the division of labour, work or
wage-labour. Yet anarchist communists like Kropotkin
have a refreshing approach to economics. Capitalists
claim that all the things listed above like money and
the market are natural, and it is impossible to have
anything else. Yet they are just stuff made up by
capitalists, like a veil to cover reality. Lift the
veil, and what we have in reality is human beings,
with their multiplicity of needs and wants that ought
to be satisfied. 

Anarchist communism is human-centred and not
otherworldly. Anarchist communists do not look to God
(if it exists) or politicians or bureaucrats to change
society, but instead to people themselves. Thus
anarchist communism?s approach to economics is to
refuse to engage it on its own terms. We don?t need to
talk of money and the market and so on, we instead
need to talk of the economic means for the
satisfaction of the needs of all human beings with the
least possible waste of energy to achieve them.
Instead of the vague and ambiguous aim of some
socialists to ?the right to work?, anarchist
communists aim for ?the right to well-being? (that is,
the satisfaction of physical, creative and other

But to satisfy these needs, we need to re-organise
society. We need to have a revolution to abolish all
classes & wage-labour. Anarchist communists reject the
market, money, and profit as both exploitative and
unnecessary. Instead, we need a society of common,
voluntary agreement to meet these shared needs and
wants. Thus if we solve the social problems of
hierarchy and inequality, then ?economics? dissolves
into a series of practical questions (how to produce a
luxurious standard of living for all with a minimum of
labour time; how to make production as safe, clean,
and fun as possible; how best to integrate industry
and agriculture, how best to integrate manual labour
with intellectual labour etc.). 

There are two aspects to communism. The first is the
taking into possession of all of the wealth of the
world, on behalf of the whole of humanity, because
that wealth is the collective work of humanity. ?All
belongs to all?. This requires the abolition of all
property, and the holding of all resources in common
for the well-being of all. The second is organising
society around the principle ?From each according to
their ability, to each according to their needs.? This
means everything should be produced, distributed and
exchanged for free according to need. Everyone would
be the judge of their own needs and take for free from
the common storehouse whatever they needed. If there
was scarcity, things would be rationed according to
need. One of the reasons the abolition of money is a
necessity is because there can be no exact measure of
the productive contribution of every individual, as
production today is so interwoven. These two aspects
of communism are intimately related: common possession
of the necessaries of production requires the common
enjoyment of the fruits of production. The abolition
of property requires the abolition of the wage system.
Retaining some form of private property or monetary
exchange would lead to the re-establishment of classes
and the state. As Kropotkin noted, ?the Revolution, we
maintain, must be communist; if not, it will be
drowned in blood, and have to begun over again.?

Communism is not some impractical dream. Even in
today?s capitalist society, we have public bridges,
beaches, roads, parks, museums, libraries and piped
water (at least in some cities) which are free for
anybody to use according to their needs. For example,
the librarian does not ask you what your previous
services to society have been before they get you a
book from the shelves or stacks. Again, these are
token examples which give us a glimpse of what is
possible under a classless and moneyless society.

One of the most common misperceptions about communism
is that it means a draconian police state where a
small party elite exploit the majority of population,
as what happened in the USSR, its Eastern European
colonies, and what is happening in China, North Korea
and Cuba. There are many theories on just what type of
societies the above countries were or are, ranging
from libertarian socialist Cornelius Castoriadis?
?bureaucratic capitalism?, to those of anarchists who
claim it was ?state capitalist?, but all are agreed
that those societies are or were capitalist not

John Crump lists five criteria for (libertarian forms
of) communism: (1) The means of production will be
owned and controlled communally, and production will
be geared towards satisfying everyone?s needs.
Production will be for use, and not for sale on the
market; (2) Distribution will be according to need,
and not by means of buying and selling; (3) Labour
will be voluntary, and not imposed on workers by means
of a coercive wages system; (4) A human community will
exist, and social divisions based on class,
nationality, sex or race will have disappeared (5)
opposition to all states, even the ones who falsely
proclaim themselves to be ?workers? states?. (Crump,
Non-Market Socialism, MacMillan, 1987, pp. 42-46). On
the basis of this criteria, we can now see that (say)
the old USSR run by the Bolshevik elite from 1917 was
a class society where the state, market and wage
system were retained, enabling a small bureaucratic
elite to be able to force the majority of the
population to work for them. As a group of council
communists said in the 1930s: ?The socialisation
concept of the Bolsheviks is therefore nothing but a
capitalist economy taken over by the State and
directed from the outside and above by its
bureaucracy. The Bolshevik socialism is
state-organised capitalism.?

Anarchism and communism are a necessary complement to
one another. A synthesis of both are required for a
free and equal society. To Kropotkin it is ?communism
without government, free Communism. It is a synthesis
of the two chief aims prosecuted by humanity since the
dawn of history - economical freedom and political

On the one hand, communism needs to be anarchist or
else it will become authoritarian communism. Communist
economic arrangements without free, voluntary
agreement could easily lead to dictatorship by a
minority. Communism needs to be free, non-statist and
voluntary from its outset. As Kropotkin noted,
?communist organisations cannot be left to be
constructed by legislative bodies called parliaments,
municipal or communal councils. It must be the work of
all, a natural growth, a product of the constructive
genius of the great mass. Communism cannot be imposed
from above; it could live even for a few months if the
constant and daily cooperation of all did not uphold
it. It must be free.? Communism could not exist
without anarchism, without thousands and thousands of
voluntary associations formed and reformed to meet
people?s needs.

On the other hand, anarchism by itself, without
communist economic arrangements, would perpetuate
class divisions. If private property or money was
retained in some form, it would be used by some groups
to exploit others. It is futile to speak of political
liberty when economic slavery still exists. The
abolition of the state requires the abolition of
capitalism. Anarchism needs communism because, by
satisfying basic human needs such as food and shelter
for all, communism provides the material basis for
anarchism or political liberty. 

Once both capitalism, the wage-system and the state
are abolished, individuals will be truly free to
develop their own potential as they wish. Anarchist
communism aims to produce the greatest amount of
individuality combined with the greatest amount of
community, and in the process eudaemony and well-being
for all. 

Now we are in a position to see that many modern
anarchists lack any notion of communism, or socialism
for that matter. Anarchism to them is reduced to the
formation of liberal non-authoritarian groupings,
based upon people?s subjective tastes. It is seen as a
purely anti-authoritarian & anti-governmental idea,
rather than an expression of
anti-capitalist/anti-statist or communist  tendencies
in society. On the other had we see that some modern
anarchists, particularly those from Marxist or
Leninist backgrounds, tend to see anarchism only in
its economic aspects, thus they focus on the class
struggle without any notion of non-authoritarian

There is a tendency for many anarchists today to see
anarchist communism as out of date. It was a product
of a society torn by vicious class divisions, but
since then, they claim, these divisions are not so
clear. This view is absurd. First of all, society
today is still based on class exploitation much like
100 years ago, and this exploitation under
neo-liberalism or the New Right has intensified!
Second of all, there is a genuine need to bring class
struggle anarchist communism up to date. The working
class has changed: the image of a male, white, blue
collar, industrial workforce is completely out of
date. The working class is now largely dominated by
(casualised) service workers, not industrial factory
workers; the majority of the working class is female;
and a high proportion of the working class in Aotearoa
are Maori and Pacific Islanders. Hence we need to see
the struggles of working class Maori, Pacific
Islanders (see article on pages 6-7), the unwaged, and
working class women as part of the class struggle. The
struggle against class exploitation needs to include
not only struggles against the boss class but
struggles against the things that divide the working
class, like sexism and racism. The class struggle is a
struggle to liberate all of humanity, not just one
particular class or group (that is, it requires the
self-abolition of the working class).

One particularly valuable attempt to update anarchist
communism comes through the work of American
eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin. The ecological crisis
means that we must not only seek genuinely democratic
methods of production, but also produce things in an
ecologically sensible way. Bookchin has formulated an
eco-anarchist communism which claims that all forms of
hierarchy are interlinked. For example, he claims
ecological destruction is rooted in our hierarchical
relationships to each other. Eliminate these
relationships, and our relationship to nature will be
transformed as well. Hence under Bookchin?s
formulation the struggle is thus to abolish all forms
of authority (class, race, gender etc.). The problem
with Bookchin is that he rejects the class struggle as
the means to abolish authority, and instead places
great hope on ?new social movements? capturing local
body governments through participating in
representative elections! This has failed in the past,
or ended up with parties that inevitably move to
accommodation with the establishment. A non-class
approach almost inevitably fails because it does not
seek to abolish the exploitative social relations that
underlie capitalism. Revolutionary class struggle, as
shown to some extent in Argentina today (see back
page), is the only means by which anarchist communism
can be brought about. Experience shows us that only
when the working class becomes conscious of its
oppression and acts in a revolutionary manner that
abolishing (or to be realistic, minimising to the
highest degree possible) all exploitation becomes

Today, many anarchist communist groups around the
world are ?platformist? in orientation. Platformists
rightly contend that anarchist communists need to be
organised into coherent, unified groups capable of
putting forward well-defined views. However, the
problem with platformist groups is that in general
they sacrifice the content of anarchist communism for
a fetishisation of their own organisational form, and
hence tend to become obsessed with their own internal
and external practice, often regardless of the actual
level of class struggle in society. They seem to be
forever searching for the perfect anarchist communist
organisation. While it is excellent that they see
anarchist communism as part of the class struggle,
often they overlook the necessarily communist
(non-market) aspect of anarchist communism, and thus
seem to be little more than anarchist collectivists
rather than communists. 

I believe anarchist communism is not an outdated
theory but still has much relevance to today?s
authoritarian capitalist society. With the rise of a
vague anti-capitalist or at least anti-corporate
feeling in society, and a general skepticism towards
political parties and unions, and increasing
questioning of the militaristic state, the prospects
for anarchist communism seem good. Anarchist communism
is a viable, well thought out alternative to
capitalism that goes beyond the vagueness of just
being ?anti-capitalist?. The neo-liberal hegemony over
society is somewhat skin-deep: it has forced us to
work harder for less pay, reducing our living
standards and producing a real disgruntlement with
work among many people. Who wants to sacrifice 40
years or more of your life doing something you hate
(work) for the profit of someone else?         

Yet we need to keep our feet on the ground.
Disgruntlement against neo-liberalism has not been
translated into positive action against the system
much. Across the ?first world?, the level of working
class resistance to capitalism is at historic lows, if
strike activity is anything to go by. Many people are
today apathetic, alienated, and individualistic; even
if many see through the spectacle of modern capitalism
and its hollow promise of happiness through enforced
consumption, most do not act against it. Once the
level of working class self-activity increases, as it
seems to be doing very recently, these attitudes will
no doubt change, and radical movements like anarchist
communism may suddenly become popular once again. 

As well, its main rivals on the left have all but
faded away: social democratic parties have collapsed
(eg. the Alliance) or transformed themselves into
right wing neo-liberal parties (eg. the Labour Party);
Stalinists have lost the lure of the USSR; and other
Marxist-Lemmingists (Leninists) have been reduced to
tiny, irrelevant sects. This collapse of the
traditional left offers us an unprecedented
opportunity to encourage coherent anarchist communist
tendencies among people without power.

- Toby.

This article is based upon the non-market anarchist
communist theories of Kropotkin. His most important
book is The Conquest of Bread, which is absolutely
essential reading if you are interested in anarchist
communism. Other important pamphlets by Kropotkin are
his Anarchist Communism and his Anarchism: Its
Philosophy and Ideal. The best overviews of
Kropotkin?s anarchist communism are in Alain Pengam?s
?Anarcho-Communism? in Non-Market Socialism in the
Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, eds. John Crump
and Maximilien Rubel, and John Crump?s chapter on
anarchist communism in his Hatta Shuzo and Pure
Anarchism in Interwar Japan.

PO Box 22-076
e-mail: thrallnet@yahoo.com
website: http://www.thrall.orcon.net.nz/
or http://www.freespeech.org/thrall

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