Introduction: The Libertarian Tradition

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

Prior to 1918 the word “communism” did not mean Left Social Democracy of the sort represented by the Russian Bolsheviks, a radical, revolutionary form of State socialism. Quite the contrary, it was used of those who wished in one way or another to abolish the State, who believed that socialism was not a matter of seizing power, but of doing away with power and returning society to an organic community of non-coercive human relations. They believed that this was what society was naturally, and that the State was only a morbid growth on the normal body of oeconomia, the housekeeping of the human family, grouped in voluntary association. Even the word “socialism” itself was originally applied to the free communist communities which were so common in America in the nineteenth century.

People who believe in libertarian communism can be grouped roughly under three general theories, each with its old masters, theoreticians, leaders, organizations, and literature. First there are the anarchists in a rather limited variety: communist-anarchists, mutualists, anarcho-syndicalists, individual anarchists, and a few minor groups and combinations. Second, the members of intentional communities, usually but by no means always religious in inspiration. The words “communalism” and “communalist” seem to have died out and it would be good to appropriate them to this group, although the by now too confusing word “communist” actually fits them best of all. Third, there are the Left Marxists, who prior to 1918 had become a widespread movement challenging the Social Democratic Second International. It was to them the Bolsheviks appealed for support in the early days of their revolution. Lenin’s The State and Revolution is an authoritarian parody of their ideas. They in turn have called it “the greatest pre-election pamphlet ever written: ‘Elect us and we will wither away’.” Against them Lenin wrote Leftism: An Infantile Disorder. There is a story that, when the Communist International was formed, a delegate objected to the name. Referring to all these groups he said: “But there are already communists.” Lenin answered: “Nobody ever heard of them, and when we get through with them nobody ever will.” Today these ideas are more influential than they ever have been.

East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, each of the revolts against the Russian power has taken the same form as the first, the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921 — free soviets, workers’ councils, neighborhood committees, and peasant communes — the same social forms that were so common in the first years of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona and in the countryside in Catalonia and Andalusia. In no instance have these revolts been reactionary, anti-communist. The slogan “Back to Free Enterprise” has never been raised. The fact is that once a society has been converted to the bureaucratic State capitalism of the Bolsheviks with the Communist Manifesto and The State and Revolution taught to all school children, a society, when it rejects the power structure, has no place else to go. The only possible fulfillment of Official Communism is free communism. Like capitalism before it, Marxism as a policy of the ruling class contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In Yugoslavia, where a Communist Party did manage to break free from Russian hegemony, the march toward ever greater workers’ participation in industry, political and economic devolution, and federated communes has been irresistible. The Yugoslav Communist Party may be what Milovan Djilas calls it, the new ruling class; but for that class to withstand the Russian pressure, it must continuously grant concessions to ensure popular support, and these concessions of course take place within an ideological context common to both the bureaucracy and the workers — a commitment to “communism.”

Since the Great Cultural Revolution in China a similar process has been going on, but from the top down. The Chinese Communist Party is trying to create and preserve at all levels of an immense population the social relations of the first two years of the Russian Bolshevik revolution, not by democratic methods but by the most rigid, coercive authoritarianism.

This is the situation in the so-called socialist half of the world: in the capitalist half, ideological development is much further advanced, but the practical results are blocked by a power structure inherited from the industrial and financial organization of nineteenth-century capitalism. Tendencies toward decentralization, and initiative at the point of production, are masked by the outworn juridical apparatus. It is in the freer areas of the social interpersonal relations of individuals, away from factory or governmental bureaucracy, that the revolutionary developments are most apparent. Effective attack on the State and the economic system requires power, and the State, which is simply the police force of the economic system, has, so far, all the effective power. Demonstrations or Molotov cocktails are equally powerless before the hydrogen bomb. This is why the important changes are taking place in what the youth revolt calls “life style.” And this is why their elders of both Old Left and Right accuse them of parasitism. Communes seem to the older generation as much luxuries of late capitalism as the immensely profitable exploitation of music — or drugs.

As concentration and depersonalization increase in the dominant society, as the concentration of capital increases with the takeover of ever larger businesses by conglomerates and international corporations, as more and more local initiative is abandoned to the rule of the central State, and as computerization and automation narrow the role of human initiative in both labor and administration, life becomes ever more unreal, aimless, and empty of meaning for all but a tiny elite who still cling to the illusion they possess initiative. Action and reaction — thesis and antithesis — this state of affairs produces its opposite. All over the world we are witnessing an instinctive revolt against dehumanization. Marxism proposed to overcome the alienation of man from his work, from his fellows, and from himself by changing the economic system. The economic system has been changed, but human self-alienation has only increased. Whether it is called socialism or capitalism, in terms of humane satisfactions and life-meaning it is the same East and West. So today the present revolt is not primarily concerned with changing political or economic structures but is a head-on attack on human self-alienation as such.

The alternative society which is the form of this revolt has largely come about instinctively. Two centuries of revolutions have exhausted the options. There is no place else to turn.

It is right that ecology should have become so enormously popular at this juncture. It is not just that man is destroying the planet on which he lives, and driving himself toward extinction by mining his environment and reducing all business enterprise to the form of an extractive industry. The human race is a certain kind of species, developed in a specific environment, with specific relations internally, man to man, and externally to other species. Had this situation not existed, the human race would not have evolved, and had it not continued within a narrow range of modification, man would have become extinct. The present relation of man to his environment and man to man has become so unlike the optimum necessary for the evolution of the species that humanity as we know it cannot endure. In such a situation a demand for readjustment is as instinctive as the reaction of an invertebrate animal subject to electric shock. This is what all the schools and tendencies of the libertarian and communal tradition have in common, a primary emphasis on man as a member of an organic community, a biota, in creative, non-exploitative relationship with his fellows and his environment. The communist-anarchists Élisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin were both geographers and, if anyone was, they were also the founders of the science of ecology.

Before the eighteenth century man had to collaborate with his environment to survive. Even so the disappearance of the great mammals, who flourished until after the end of the Ice Age, has been blamed on human hunters, then a very small portion of the biota indeed; and deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture, and the salting up of irrigated lands have destroyed whole civilizations. With the onset of the industrial and scientific age business enterprise has tended more and more to treat the planet as a mine rather than a farm and to treat human resources in the same way. It is now obvious that if the human race continues on this course it will not last beyond the end of the century.

The workings of the economic system have produced, in true Marxist fashion, many of the phenomena of communalism and anarchism. Most obvious is the tremendous growth throughout the Western world of communal living itself. With the runaway inflation of a moribund Keynesian economy, thousands of young people, particularly young people with children, find it impossible to preserve the standard of living they had encountered in a middle-class affluent society and are able to escape real poverty only in small communes. Meanwhile, the kind of life lived in stately homes, and twelve-room apartments, has ceased, and these places are taken over by groups who share expenses and responsibilities — moving always ahead of the redevelopers’ wrecking ball. As urban life becomes too expensive, distraught, and filthy — as well as dangerous — and as tax money goes to war rather than to community life, more and more people flee the city and set up rural communes on the old-fashioned sixty to two-hundred-acre general farms which can no longer compete with industrialized agriculture.

One could not ask for a clearer relationship between economics and what Engels used to call the “superstructure.” It is true that such communes at present are in a sense humane parasites on the dehumanized dominant society, but the assumption is that at least the rural ones may survive when the dominant society breaks down in chaos and nuclear war. To become economically independent the communes would have to develop an economy of their own as a systematic devolution of the ever more concentrated dominant economy. This would require an entirely different standard of living, in the fundamental sense of an entirely different scale of life values. But this, of course, is what is slowly taking place.

Almost all the problems which face the development of an alternative society have been realized and discussed in theory somewhere in the libertarian tradition. Friedrich Engels made the contrast Socialism — Utopian or Scientific. The scientific socialism of Marx and Engels was supposed to demonstrate almost mathematically that socialist revolution was inevitable and that therefore the duty of the revolutionary was to collaborate with history and never ask where, when, why, how, or what. Any attempt to answer those questions beforehand was “utopian.” But history has produced only more of the same and called it socialism. By not answering the fundamental questions beforehand, by not having a plan for what a new society should be, Marxism has turned out to be not very far removed from “revolution for the hell of it.” Today we realize that social change must move toward a rather clearly envisaged future or it will move toward disaster. It is either utopia or catastrophe.

As the technology has moved past a critical point, a point at which quantity changes into quality, as water turns into steam, it becomes ever more incompatible with the social structures, especially the power structure of nineteenth-century industrial and financial exploitation. The same kind of contradiction between social forms and economic content is occurring as in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when capitalist methods of exploitation burst through the crust of feudal and mercantile forms. Although the existing tendencies of the capitalist system and of the State are to use the ongoing technological revolution for purposes of ever greater industrial, administrative, and political concentration, the real potential of these changes moves in the opposite direction. Over wide areas of the economy it becomes increasingly possible to begin a radical devolution and decentralization of production. At the same time labor power, in the sense of brute muscular energy, declines in importance; and it is questionable if today it would be possible to construct a model of economic theory in which, as in the economics of Marx and Ricardo, labor power in that sense was the sole or even the primary source of value.

If the aim of production was life-enhancement and not profit, it would be quite possible to begin now to make more and more kinds of work easy, interesting, and creative. Notoriously already, certain kinds of monotonous work — assembly-line production of automobiles, old-fashioned mining, and so forth — are suffering from a breakdown of morale on the job and from an inability to recruit sufficient workers at full production. Drug use in Detroit is almost as common as it was in Vietnam and for similar reasons — the rejection of an intolerable way of life.

The demand for change in the way of life presses continuously against the blockage of obsolete social structures and, in cases where the power structure can permit it, overthrows and breaks through them. The special economic marriage peculiar to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has become obsolete as a cog in the machinery of production. (It was beginning to do so when Ibsen wrote The Doll’s House.) The present political, economic, and religious systems offer no meaningful alternative. As a result, a sexual revolution is taking place surpassing the wildest dreams of feminists and the free lovers of the old anarchist movement. Over twenty years ago a woman friend of mine remarked: “There’s an Emma Goldman in every car parked along the beach tonight.” Today the demand is for, not random and promiscuous relationships, but ones with a new kind of interpersonal and personal significance. As these relationships become common they are profoundly modifying the social structure. Not so long ago an anarchist life style was confined to a tiny minority of self-conscious bohemians and revolutionaries. Bohemianism is the subculture of the alienated. Unknown in previous societies, it grew up with capitalism itself. William Blake and William Godwin and their circles are roughly contemporary with the French Revolution and the onset of the industrial age. It has been said of bohemia that it is a parasitic utopia whose inhabitants live as if the revolution were over; or again, that the bohemian foregoes the necessities of the poor to enjoy the luxuries of the rich. What this simply means is that from the beginning capitalism secreted, as a kind of natural product, a small, slowly growing class of people who flatly rejected its alienation and lack of meaning. Even in the hard days of primitive accumulation of capital, the system was so inefficient that it was possible to live a different kind of life in its interstices, if one was lucky, well, usually self-educated, and born above the level of dire poverty. Today interstices have opened up everywhere in an affluent society. The fact that thousands of people can desert the industrial capitalist economy and live by making pots or batiks or leather work or strumming guitars may seem superficial and trivial. It is not. The problem is to reorganize the economy so that the automobiles are made in the same way.

Today everyone knows that a major war would result in the extermination of the human race, but that nevertheless as long as any of the existing political or economic systems continue the impossible war is certain to come eventually. The two largest conflicts since the Second World War, in Korea and Vietnam, broke down in a complete collapse of morale. Without war the economic and political systems produce the same kind of demoralization. The symptoms of the collapse of the civilization are all about us, and they are far more pronounced than they were in the last years of the Roman Empire. Yet not all of these symptoms are necessarily pathological. The contemporary world is being pulled apart by two contrary tendencies — one toward social death, one toward the birth of a new society. Many of the phenomena of the present crisis are ambivalent and can either mean death or birth depending on how the crisis is resolved.

The crisis of a civilization is a mass phenomenon and moves onward without benefit of ideology. The demand for freedom, community, life significance, the attack on alienation, is largely inchoate and instinctive. In the libertarian revolutionary movement these objectives were ideological, confined to books, or realized with difficulty, usually only temporarily in small experimental communities, or in individual lives and tiny social circles. It has been said of the contemporary revolutionary wave that it is a revolution without theory, anti-ideological. But the theory, the ideology, already exists in a tradition as old as capitalism itself. Furthermore, just as individuals specially gifted have been able to live free lives in the interstices of an exploitative, competitive system, so in periods when the developing capitalist system has temporarily and locally broken down due to the drag of outworn forms there have existed brief revolutionary honeymoons in which freer communal organization has prevailed. Whenever the power structure falters or fails the general tendency is to replace it with free communism. This is almost a law of revolution. In every instance so far, either the old power structure, as in the Paris Commune or the Spanish Civil War, or a new one, as in the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, has suppressed these free revolutionary societies with wholesale terror and bloodshed.