The idea of the commune in anarchist practice

An in-depth article emphasising the importance of the idea of the Commune in revolutionary anarchist thought

Submitted by Battlescarred on June 13, 2013

The basic social and economic cell of the anarchist society is the free, independent commune.

- A. Grachev, quoted by Paul Avrich, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution

The communes of the next revolution will not only break down the state and substitute free federation for parliamentary rule; they will part with parliamentary rule within the commune itself. They will trust the free organization of food supply and production to free groups of workers which will federate with like groups in other cities and villages not through the medium of a communal parliament but directly, to accomplish their aim.

- Kropotkin, The Paris Commune

Anarchist communism developed from the workers movement within the first mass organisation of the working class, the First International or International Workers Association. It had its roots in the communist current that had developed during the French Revolution with Babeuf and Sylvain Marechal, and then with the communist banquets of Belleville, a working class neighbourhood of Paris in 1840, and then with Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling. In cross-pollination with the libertarian current that emerged among the most advanced French workers in the First International themselves in contact with the Russian Bakunin who had developed similar ideas to them, it mutated into the idea of anarchist communism, which appears to have simultaneously emerged among French exiles in Switzerland, within the Swiss Jura Federation of the First International itself, and in the Italian section of the International. French workers like Dumartheray and Italian intellectuals like Covelli appear to have assisted in its birth, but it was eagerly taken up by those who had been close to Bakunin in the International, like Malatesta, Costa, Cafiero and Brousse, by Elisee Reclus, and by latecomers like Kropotkin. This development would most likely have happened anyway, but it was the epochal events of the Paris Commune of 1871 that really left their mark on the birth of anarchist communism as an idea.

The Paris Commune meant different things to Marx and his followers than to the current that had begun to define itself as anarchist. To the first current it meant the worker’s state and the dictatorship of the proletariat, to the latter it meant free federation of a system of communes and the abolition of State and Government. Kropotkin was well aware of the shortcomings of the Paris Commune, writing:

“The Commune of 1871 could not be any more than a first sketch. Born at the end of a war, surrounded by two armies ready to give a hand in crushing the people, it dared not declare itself openly socialist, and proceeded neither to the expropriation of capital nor to the organization of work, nor even to a general inventory of the city's resources. Nor did it break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and it did not attempt to achieve within the Commune that organization from the simple to the complex it adumbrated by proclaiming the independence and free federation of Communes. But it is certain that if the Commune of Paris had lived a few months longer, the strength of events would have forced it towards these two revolutions.” Words of a Rebel.

In the article he wrote on the Paris Commune in 1880, Kropotkin expands on the concept of the commune as the essential and basic unit of the social revolution, in a characterically optimistic fashion :

“The next rising of communes will not be merely a "communal" movement. Those who still think that independent, local self-governing bodies must be first established and that these must try to make economic reforms within their own localities are being carried along by the further development of the popular spirit, at least in France. The communes of the next revolution will proclaim and establish their independence by direct socialist revolutionary action, abolishing private property. When the revolutionary situation ripens, which may happen any day, and governments are swept away by the people, when the bourgeois camp, which only exists by state protection, is thus thrown into disorder, the insurgent people will not wait until some new government decrees, in its marvellous wisdom, a few economic reforms.
They will not wait to expropriate the holders of social capital by a decree which necessarily would remain a dead letter if not accomplished in fact by the workers themselves. They will take possession on the spot and establish their rights by utilizing it without delay. They will organize themselves in the workshops to continue the work, but what they will produce will be what is wanted by the masses, not what gives the highest profit to employers. They will exchange their hovels for healthy dwellings in the houses of the rich; they will organize themselves to turn to immediate use the wealth stored up in the towns; they will take possession of it as if it had never been stolen from them by the bourgeoisie”.

Paul Brousse had dwelt on the ideas of the Commune as the essential unit of the revolution in an earlier number of articles in 1873, called Le Socialisme Pratique (Practical Socialism) . He saw the Commune as the “vehicle of revolution”. The Commune, of course, was already the basic unit of French governmental administration but increasingly became to be used in a different sense by anarchists. So the Communes on a local level would be seized through revolution involving the majority of the working class, according to Brousse . “The autonomous Commune, there you have the means, but not the ends”, that being a far sweeping revolution.

At the annual Congress of the Jura Federation in 1875, the anarchist Schwitzguelbel advanced the idea of the Federation of Communes, contrasting it with the idea of the workers’ State. With these ideas Brousse, Schwitzguebel and Kropotkin were expanding on the statement of Bakunin who in his writing on the Paris Commune proclaimed: “ I believe that equality must be established in the world by the spontaneous organization of labour and the collective ownership of property by freely organized producers’ associations, and by the equally spontaneous federation of communes, to replace the domineering paternalistic State.”

Thus, whilst the organisation of workers within the workplaces always remained a major concern of the anarchists, certainly from it developing as a current within the First international, and carrying on with the establishment of libertarian workers’ organisation in Spain and other countries as a direct consequence of developments within the International, the idea of the Commune as the revolutionary vehicle was the central concern of those anarchists.

This communal idea was seen as the most viable way of organising the whole of the oppressed and not just in the workplaces. It would be the means of expression of the mass of the oppressed, whether workers in large or small factories, women, the unemployed, the youth, the old and it would as be as efficacious in the countryside among the peasantry and the agrarian workers as it would be among the urban masses. The organisation of workers in the workplace was seen as an extremely valuable adjunct to that, but it was not as yet seen as a substitute for the idea of the Commune. The idea of the Commune meant obviously a communal organisation of life which would unite the interests of the mass of the working class, not just those sections actually employed in factories and workshops. In his Ideas on Social Organisation written in 876, the close friend of Bakunin, James Guillaume expanded on the nature of communal organisation in both countryside and city. The idea of the Commune met with approval at the 1880 congress of the Jura Federation which drafted a statement including the following: “The ideas set out regarding the Commune are open to the interpretation that it is a matter of replacing the current form of State with a more restricted form, to wit, the Commune. We seek the elimination of every form of State, general or restricted, and the Commune is, as far as we are concerned, only the synthetic expression of the organic form of free human associations.”

In another document drafted at the same congress the functions of the Commune were defined:

“What are to be the powers of the Commune? Upkeep of all social wealth; monitoring usage of various capital elements-sub-soil, land, buildings, tools and raw materials- by the trades bodies; oversight of labour organisation, insofar as general interests are concerned; organizing exchange and, eventually, distribution and consumption of products; maintenance of highways, buildings, thoroughfares and public gardens; organizing insurance against all accidents; health service; security service; local statistics; organizing the maintenance , training and education of children; sponsoring the arts, sciences, discoveries and applications. i]We also want this local life in these different spheres of activity to be free, like the organization of a trade; free organization of individuals, groups and neighbourhoods alike, to meet the various local services we have enumerated.”

Whilst the idea of anarchist communism and the Federation of Communes as the principal revolutionary vehicle remained central to anarchist ideas in the 1880s, in other ways the anarchist movement made a number of serious mistakes, not least those originally advanced by those like Kropotkin and others from the days of the First International. These erroneous ideas were engendered by the following

1. The climate of repression reigning throughout Europe and the United States

2. The bullying tactics used by social democrats like Jaures, Hyndman, Millerand, Bebel , Liebknecht and Eleanor Marx to physically exclude anarchists and libertarian socialists from the Socialist Congresses of the 1880s.

3. An increasingly narrow interpretation of the idea and tactic of Propaganda by the Deed. Originally used to mean exemplary action by a small group of revolutionaries to illustrate tactics of direct action and/or spark revolutionary movements in a situation that was ripe for revolution ( as seen by anarchists in southern Italy for example) it soon came to mean attentats and assassinations of individual members of the ruling classes, whether they be from the monarchy or from government

4. A move away from the organisation developed in the International towards small and sometimes secret groups organised through affinity of friendship and political conviction.

This created isolation from the mass of the working class (though it should be emphasised that the bulk of the anarchist movement at that time was composed of advanced workers). Thus Kropotkin could say in 1880: Permanent revolt in speech, writing, by the dagger and the gun, or by dynamite…anything suits us that is alien to legality”, though he always dissociated himself from the extremely narrow definition by Brousse of the idea of propaganda by the deed as defined as individual acts of terrorism. In addition he is referring not just to the conditions prevailing in Western Europe but those within the autocratic regime of Tsarist Russia where different tactics might be called for. Whatever, in the long run these concepts brought down further repression on the anarchist movement with the execution and imprisonment and exile of many of the most courageous militants. Kropotkin was able to see the dead end of isolation that the anarchist movement was marching into and had the presence of mind to make various corrective statements.

Kropotkin was to pen a series of articles in 1890 where he stated “ that one must be with the people, who no longer want isolated acts, but want men (sic) of action inside their ranks”. He cautioned against “the illusion that one can defeat the coalition of exploiters with a few pounds of explosives” and proposed a turn to agitation in mass movements.

It was in response to the on the one hand, the trade unions under the tutelage of parliamentarian and legalistic social democratic parties and on the other of the small anarchist affinity group prone to attentats, that a new tendency arose within the anarchist movement. This was anarcho-syndicalism as pioneered by French activists like Pelloutier and Monatte.

Kropotkin himself pointed out that the strategy of agitating among associations of workers based in the workplace went back to some of the tactics used by Bakuninists within the First international in Switzerland, Italy and Spain and traced the birth of French anarcho-syndicalism back to Bakuninist tactics.

Anarcho-syndicalist unions were seen as operating in two ways, on one hand defending the interests of the workers in the here and now, through fighting for better pay and conditions, and on the other hand providing the organisation for a coming free society . as one of the chief propagandists of anarcho-syndicalism , Rudolf Rocker, put it: “ According to the syndicalist view, the trade union, the syndicate, is the unified organization of labour and has for its purpose the defence of the interests of the producers within existing society and the preparing for and the practical carrying out of the reconstruction of social life after the pattern of socialism”( Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism).

One of the key concepts of anarcho-syndicalism , apart from anti-parliamentarism and direct action, was the General Strike. This moved from being one weapon among several that the working class could use both in everyday struggle and in times of revolutionary upheaval , to the main means of bringing about the social revolution and the ensuing free society. Indeed, it can be seen that it became a key plank in the programme of the German anarcho-syndicalist Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschland (FAUD) as a substitute for insurrection and armed revolution, and as a direct result of the defeat of the German Revolution of 1918. In fact, a specifically pacifist discourse around the idea of the General Strike was pushed by the main leading lights within the FAUD like Rocker, although it had its internal opponents like Karl Roche and among the youth, who refused to reject the use of revolutionary violence.

Thus to a lesser or greater extent within the different anarcho-syndicalist organisations, and according to local conditions, the General Strike came to be seen as a substitute for insurrection and head on conflict with the State, whereas the idea of the Commune was always intimately associated with revolutionary upheaval.

Kropotkin, Malatesta and other veterans of the anarchist movement recognized the potential of anarcho-syndicalist unions in organising workers and in seizing the means of production. On the other hand they were wary about the dangers of reformism within the syndicalist movement. Kropotkin recognised that : “Since the great struggle for which we prepare ourselves, is an essentially economic struggle, it is on the economic ground that our agitation has to take place”. However whilst welcoming such organisation he put equal emphasis on the idea of the Commune. Saying “It is necessarily under the banner of the independence of the municipal and agricultural communes that the next revolutions will be made. It is also in the independent communes that socialist tendencies are inevitably going to appear. It is there that the first outlines of the new society will be sketched out…”

At the international anarchist congress of 1907 in Amsterdam Pierre Monatte argued that syndicalism was “sufficient unto itself”. Malatesta responded that whilst he had always been involved with working class politics, such struggles were a means to an end, and to to see the general strike as a “panacea for all ills” was “pure utopia”. Malatesta agreed that the anarchist movement had in the decade of the 1880s, isolated itself from the working class movement, but now it was going to another extreme and losing itself in a syndicalist movement open to reformism, bureaucratisation and opportunism. Malatesta attacked the idea of the General Strike in these terms:

Now, let us move on to the general strike. As far as I am concerned, I accept the principle and promote it as much as I can, and have done so for several years. The general strike has always struck me as an excellent means to set off the social revolution. However, let us take care to avoid falling under the dangerous illusion that the general strike can make the revolution superfluous. We are expected to believe that by suddenly halting production the workers will starve the bourgeoisie into submission within a few days. Personally speaking, I can think of nothing more absurd. The first to starve to death during a general strike will not be the bourgeoisie who have all the accumulated produce at their disposal, but the workers, who only have their labour to live on.

The general strike as it is described to us is a pure utopia. Either the workers, starving after three days of striking, will go back to work with his tail between his legs and we add yet another defeat to the list, or he will decide to take the products into his own hands by force. And who will try to stop him? Soldiers, gendarmes, the bourgeoisie itself, and the whole matter will be necessarily decided with rifles and bombs. It will be an insurrection and victory will lie with the strongest. So then, let us prepare for this inevitable insurrection instead of limiting ourselves to exalting the general strike as if it were a panacea for all evils. “

Jean Grave was to add that “syndicalism can- and must –be self-sufficient in its struggle against exploitation by the employers, but it cannot pretend to be able to solve the social problem by itself”.
Murray Bookchin has deeply flawed criticisms of anarcho-syndicalism, in the way he interpreted the proletariat in a narrow way as the industrial working class. He often hurled the accusation of “vulgar Marxism “ at his opponents, when he was just as guilty of that offence in his understanding of what constitutes the proletariat. However sometimes his salvos hit home as can partially be seen in the following:

“The authentic locus of anarchists in the past was the commune or municipality, not the factory, which was generally conceived as only part of a broader communal structure, not its decisive component. Syndicalism, to the extent that it narrowed this broader outlook by singling out the proletariat and its industrial environment as its locus, also crucially narrowed the more sweeping social and moral landscape that traditional anarchism had created. In large part this ideological retreat reflected the rise of the factory system in the closing years of the last century in France and Spain, but it also echoed the ascendancy of a particularly vulgar form of economistic Marxism (Marx, to his credit, did not place much stock in trade unionism), to which many naive anarchists and nonpolitical trade unionists succumbed. After the Revolution by Abad de Santillan, one of the movers and shakers of Spanish anarchosyndicalism, reflects this shift toward a pragmatic economism in such a way that makes his views almost indistinguishable from those of the Spanish socialists - and, of course, that brought him into collusion with the Catalan government, literally one of the grave-diggers of Spanish anarchism.” Deep Ecology, Anarcho-Syndicalism and the future of Anarchist Thought

Bookchin goes on to make the sweeping and ludicrous statement that “Syndicalism - be it anarchosyndicalism or its less libertarian variants - has probably done more to denature the ethical content of anarchism than any other single factor in the history of the movement, apart from anarchism's largely marginal and ineffectual individualist tendencies.” Bookchin’s lack of judgement in conflating the class struggle anarchist politics of anarcho-syndicalism with the deeply destructive individualist anarchist current does him no favours. At a time when clarity of thought is what was needed in reconstructing a serious revolutionary anarchist politics, Bookchin’s powers of reason failed. His adventures with libertarian municipalism, and then his renunciation of anarchism and his adoption of “communalism” tells against him on this score. Bookchin is correct in his understanding of the de-emphasising of the idea of the Commune , on much else he is off the mark. One of his more lucid works The Spanish Anarchists 1868-1936 deals with greater precision on syndicalism: “Syndicalism, to be sure, has many shortcomings, but its Marxian critics were in no position to point them out because they were shared by Socialist parties as well. In modelling themselves structurally on the bourgeois economy, the syndicalist unions tended to become the organisational counterparts of the very centralized apparatus they professed to oppose. By pleading the need to deal effectively with the tightly knit bourgeoisie and state machinery, reformist leaders in syndicalist unions often had little difficulty in shifting organisational control from the bottom to the top. Many older anarchists were mindful of these dangers and felt uncomfortable with syndicalist doctrines. Errico Malatesta, fearing the emergence of a bureaucracy in the new union movement, warned that “the official is to the working class a danger only comparable to that provided by the parliamentarian; both lead to corruption and from corruption to death is but a short step” These Anarchists saw in syndicalism a shift in focus from the commune to the trade union, from all of the oppressed to the industrial proletariat alone, from the streets to the factories, and, in emphasis at least, from insurrection to general strike.”

So what of the idea of the Commune in the present period? Anarchist Communism was the principal current within anarchism between 1880 and 1920 and it remained so beyond that period in places like Bulgaria and Japan. The post-war revival of anarchism involved a resurrection of anarchist communist ideas and of course it has been an advocate of the Idea of the Commune in the last few decades.
It seems that over the last year or so the Idea of the Commune is being taken up by other groups and currents. We can see this in the recent statements of The Commune group, where they say on their Facebook page:

“The case for local communes:

The focus shouldn't just be on a 'Party' & electoral politics. Vast numbers of people instinctively know that so-called 'representative' democracy is nothing of the sort, but most, understandably, can't see any alternative. They know the system screws them every which way. Hence the danger of over-focusing on electoral politics is you come across as another group of wanna-be's wanting power. In this pursuit of votes the temptation will be to moderate the message because of a hostile media. Falling into the Syriza trap of looking to be a credible government presiding over a less harsh form of capitalism - a bit of nationalisation here & there, a bit of redistribution, but still capitalism.

What is needed is to present an alternative system rather than an alternative party. That means building an alternative system now. Not vote for us who believe in an alternative system & when we get power, then we'll give it to you. Building an alternative system now is like the Occupy movement, or the structure of the IOPS website. It is direct democracy now. Giving people an equal say in decision-making now. Not another group of politicians, however well intentioned, separated from the people.

We can do this through facebook. Already the Commune have local Commune groups, not just in Britain but also in places like Cairo. These can be opened up to all who want the common ownership of the means of production rather than the private ownership. The embryonic 21st century on-line Soviets, or councils, or assemblies, or whatever people want to call them. We've gone for the name communes after the Paris Commune of 1871. The hope is that as they attract enough people they meet regularly & become a parallel system of power eventually challenging & supplanting the capitalist political institutions. Being facebook this can be done internationally & can take on its own momentum. “

It can be also seen in the recent meetings where Occupy London , International Organization for a Participatory Society, Anti-Capitalist Initiative and various anarchists in the London area held “cross-movement” assemblies:

“The people’s assembly model for organising and decision making was discussed. Most participants felt that the people’s assembly model could help to facilitate new forms of social relations and organising. But, it was also pointed out that assemblies may not always be appropriate, for example when working in communities with already established processes of their own. Here, some thought, perhaps introducing participatory / horizontal processes gradually into already existing community forums may be a more conducive way of engaging practically and effectively in grassroots struggles without fetishising certain methods of coming to decisions.

This led to participants questioning what practical outcomes could emerge from the “Becoming Catalysts” assemblies space. After several proposals and much deliberation, we reached strong agreement that the “Becoming Catalysts” assemblies had the potential to bring different groups together, share information on lessons learned, and organise support for local action, among other things.”

Of course all of these developments involve consciously political groupings and there are problems with the politics of some of those involved. A number of grouplets meeting together is of little value unless real social movements and struggles can be related to. In this respect the developments in Barnet over the last year are interesting. Here locally based people fighting cuts built an effective alliance with activists from Occupy and others, using tactics of direct action. The local campaign rightly sees that the privatisation being pushed through by the Council, the attack on the NHS, the setting up of academies and free schools, and the attacks on postal workers and fire stations are interlinked.

The opportunity could exist for local assemblies, Communes, call them what you will, to develop in this time of increasing austerity and cuts. The danger always exists for sabotage or cooption by the Labour Party or by various vanguardist groups but the strength of a movement can be gauged by how strenuously such moves are resisted. The much advertised People’Assembly, with a leadership of Labour and Green Party MPs, trade union bureaucrats and leftist celebrities, backed by the likes of vanguardist outfits like the Coalition of Resistance etc, which holds a rally this summer, is a graphic example of what must be avoided at all costs.

In this time of greyness and media-peddled notions that nothing can be done to counter austerity, any developments towards direct decision making and attempts at new forms of organisation on the communal model should be encouraged. As anarchist communists we should engage in any such processes and not be afraid to engage with, cooperate and indeed debate with other currents and tendencies within what could be embryos of new forms of social organisation.
Nick Heath

From Organise! 80, magazine of the Anarchist Federation